Jesus Loved Him: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year B

What questions are burning in your heart today? Is there something pressing on your soul? Are you wondering where your next meal is coming from or whether you’ll have enough money to make it till the end of the month? Are you facing a significant transition in life, wondering what to do next as you’re thinking about changing employment, or graduation, or moving into living space that is better adapted to your lifestyle and physical health? Or are other questions nudging their way to your consciousness? Questions like whether God exists, or whether there’s any meaning at all to life?

Our readings today are full of weighty questions. There’s the Psalm, which begins with an expression of utter despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” By the way, these are the words Jesus spoke from the cross according to Mark and Matthew, the question Jesus asked as he was dying.

There’s Job’s question, not so much expressed in today’s reading as implied, “Why I am I suffering?” There’s the young man’s question in the gospel, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There’s the disciples’ question after hearing Jesus’ hard words about wealth, “Then who can be saved?”

Any of these scriptural questions—the Psalmist’s, Job’s, the rich young man’s, even the disciples’—are questions we might have asked at some point in our lives. Some of us may be asking one or more of these questions right now.


The story of the young man, on the surface, is fairly simple. He comes to Jesus, asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies with a simple answer—keep the commandments. The man replies that he’s kept the commandments all of his life. It would seem that Jesus’ reply at this point is to ratchet things up, give the man another commandment that he must follow on top of all the others.

We’re probably inclined to interpret what the young man says critically—he’s hypocritical or lying if he claims he has kept all of the commandments—but note that Jesus doesn’t respond that way. Mark adds one of his intriguing details when he says that Jesus loved him. It is from that love that Jesus responds, “Go sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” So rather than judging the young man for his inability to do what Jesus asked, we might look on him in this story as Jesus does, with love.

If we do that, we might begin to see things differently. First of all, the story itself. Mark tells us that Jesus is on the way—that is to say, he is traveling. But he is not wandering aimlessly; he is on the way to Jerusalem and the cross. And as we have seen over the last several weeks, along the way, Jesus has been instructing his disciples on what it means to follow him—that discipleship means accompanying Jesus to the cross, and perhaps facing crucifixion themselves.

The second thing to note is that Mark describes the encounter between the young man and Jesus in terms almost identical to the way he tells healing stories earlier in the gospel. Repeatedly, people come to Jesus, kneel before him, and ask for his healing power. So too this young man. He doesn’t have a physical illness, but it may be that his question about inheriting eternal life is an expression of a longing for deeper meaning in life. Perhaps he senses that there’s more than obedience to commandments and hopes that Jesus will quench his thirst.

Perhaps that’s why Mark tells us that Jesus loves him, that Jesus senses the man’s dissatisfaction and dis-ease, and wants to offer him wholeness and healing. And what is Jesus’ answer? “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” And now, Mark gives us another bit of information that dramatically changes the story. It’s at this point that we learn that the young man is wealthy, he has many possessions. And so, instead of following Jesus, the man turns away in shock and grief.

There’s something else in this story that intrigues me. I already mentioned the young man’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And I said that it’s a question many of us, perhaps all of us ask. But I wonder. Think about how it’s phrased and whether Mark is telegraphing something important about following Jesus. Think about that word, “inherit.” In the ancient world, if not today, inheritance almost always was a family thing—parents’ passing their possessions on to their children after death. Inheritance implies family; it implies privilege.

When Jesus talks about discipleship and following him in the gospel of Mark, he stresses that it means giving up everything, including family ties. And here, Peter says, “we have left everything to follow you.” Jesus follows that up with a saying about the reward for giving up everything, including family, to follow him.

Seen in this light, the man’s question is phrased incorrectly. What Jesus is proclaiming is a new community based not on ties of family or economic status. It may be that when Jesus tells the young man to distribute his possessions among the poor, he is instructing him to break away from his old relationships of privilege and family and enter into this new community that Jesus is calling together. It’s interesting that Jesus uses the same words, “Follow me,” to the young man that he used when calling the disciples. But in this instance, he has added another stipulation, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor.” It’s as if he knows, to pick up on the idea that this story is in the form of a healing story, that for the young man to follow him, to be whole spiritually, he needs to abandon his wealth.

But what does this all have to do with us? It’s a story that may fill us with guilt because we think about our relative wealth in the face of the world’s and this city’s poor. It may fill us with guilt because of our comfort and enjoyment of life in the face of the world’s need. We may think that this is one of those places where what Jesus has to say has no relevance for our lives.

But I don’t think that’s the case. All of us struggle with money. Some of us struggle with the lack of money, with worries about the future, about making it till the end of the pay period. Some of us have different struggles, as we wonder whether how our financial lives connect with our spiritual lives. Did you know that Jesus had more to say about money and wealth than about any other topic?

It’s not something we like to talk about at church, especially in this time of the year as we are beginning our annual stewardship campaign. But we need to talk about it and think about it, as a congregation and as individual Christians. Jesus calls us to follow him. He wants our whole allegiance, body and soul. Following him totally means living all of our existence in light of him and that call. It means seeing our wealth, our financial choices, in light of that call. As we do that, we know that Jesus loves us as he loved the rich young man.


A Homily for the Feast of St. Francis, 2015


Today is the Feast of St. Francis, marking the saint’s death 789 years ago. St. Francis is among the most beloved and most familiar of all the saints of western Christianity. He remains as popular today as he was in his lifetime. His love of animals and of God’s creation have made him an icon of the environmental movement. His joy, playfulness, and child-like faith offer an alternative to a Christianity that often seems to take itself too seriously. Continue reading

Rowan Williams on Laudato Si

Rowan Williams writes in Commonweal

The fact that we live in a culture tone-deaf to any sense of natural law is here starkly illustrated by the persistent tendency of modern human agents to act as though the naked fact of personal desire for unlimited acquisition were the only “given” in the universe, so that ordinary calculations of prudence must be ignored. Measureless acquisition, consumption, or economic growth in a finite environment is a literally nonsensical idea; yet the imperative of growth remains unassailable, as though we did not really inhabit a material world.


The material world tells us that to be human is to be in dialogue with what is other: what is physically other, what is humanly other in the solid three-dimensionality of other persons, ultimately what is divinely other. And in a world created by the God Christians believe in, this otherness is always communicating: meaning arises in this encounter, it is not devised by our ingenuity. Hence the pope’s significant and powerful appeal to be aware of the incalculable impact of the loss of biodiversity: it is not only a loss of resource but a diminution of meaning. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us” (33).


If we can lift our heads from the trenches of contemporary media-driven controversy, what we are being offered in this encyclical is, in the very fullest sense, a theology of liberation, drawing our minds and hearts toward a converted culture that is neither what T. S. Eliot called “ringing the bell backwards,” pining for a lost social order and a lost form or style of authority, nor a religiously inflected liberalism, but a genuinely ecclesial vision. The pope’s cultural revolution is about restored relationship with the creation we belong with and the creator who made us to share his bliss in communion; it is about the unbreakable links between contemplation, eucharist, justice, and social transformation. It constitutes a major contribution to the ongoing unfolding of a body of coherent social teaching, and a worthy expansion and application of the deeply impressive doctrinal syntheses of Pope Benedict’s major encyclicals.

Welcoming Children, Welcoming Jesus: A Sermon for Proper 20, Year B

Last Sunday, as I was locking up the building, I heard some voices down at the end of the hall in the education wing. I went to investigate.  It was the middle school /youth class meeting. I joined them for a few minutes. They were talking about the service, my sermon and the bible readings. One of the kids had a good question for me. They wondered why I usually preach on the gospel and don’t talk about the other texts. It’s an easy answer. Our job as preachers is to preach the gospel. I don’t always do that, of course. Last summer, for example, I preached a number of sermons on Paul’s letter to the Romans, and earlier this summer, I preached on the texts from the Hebrew Bible, as we were reading the stories of Samuel, Saul, and David. But for the most part, I do preach on the gospel reading for the day.

That being said, there are Sundays when the lectionary readings present particular problems. They may be confusing or troubling. They may even be offensive. Continue reading

How to Save Your Life: A Sermon for Proper 19, Year B

I have a routine  as I prepare sermons week to week. I try to read the texts as early as possible. If I get a good nap on Sunday afternoon, I’ll look at them in the late afternoon or evening. The gospel reading will echo in my mind all week, as I continue to mull it over. There are a couple of websites I visit to read commentaries and reflections. I look back at sermons I’ve previously preached on the text. I think about what’s going in the world, the city, and in our congregation. I’m always looking for a new idea, a new perspective that will give me a new way of thinking about the text, as well as a way for you to enter into the text as well, and to explore how that text might inform your own life. Continue reading

Even dogs get table-scraps: A Sermon for Proper 18, Year B


Two images have dominated my reflections, and the news, over the last week. The first is that image of a 2-year old Syrian boy, his body washed up on the beach. The second is that of Kim Davis, the County Clerk in Kentucky who has been jailed for contempt of court because she refuses to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Continue reading

Madison’s Mayor Trump: The Criminalization of homelessness

The Philosophers’ Stones are gone; as of October 1, the City-County Building will no longer be a place of sanctuary for homeless people. Mayor Soglin has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour. has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour.  has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour. It seems that the Mayor is putting into action for Madison’s homeless population what Donald Trump is proposing for undocumented aliens–deporting them all. Certainly, he’s been successful in riling up passions (and eventually bringing other politicians into line with him–this was the third vote on the ban at the City-County Building).

But just like Trump’s ideas, criminalizing homelessness won’t work.. In the first place, there are serious constitutional questions about the Mayor’s proposed ordinance. And second, if there is no place for homeless people to sleep, then I suppose they’ll be arrested and jailed (where at least they’ll have a roof over their heads and meals.

The harsh reality is that we don’t have housing for all of the people who need. The vacancy rate in Madison hovers around 2%, and although I’ve heard rumors that there are signs that developers have nearly saturated the market for upscale student housing, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of interest in providing adequate, affordable housing in Madison or Dane County.

And then there’s this statistic from the Salvation Army today. They can accommodate at most 18-21 people in their emergency shelter. On August 31, 2015, 80 women and children sought shelter there.

We know what works. Housing First programs in places like Salt Lake City have successfully cut the numbers of chronic people at a significant cost savings. It’s estimated that on average, a homeless person costs taxpayers around $30,000/yr in services, especially emergency services (ER, police). Mayor Soglin likes to talk about Housing First, but he doesn’t actually want to commit city resources to providing housing for people on the scale necessary. Mayor, that’s sixty women and children who didn’t have a place to stay last night!

Where will Madison’s homeless go? I know the Mayor hopes they’ll all go back to where they came from. My guess is they’ll try to hide and eke out an existence where cops and politicians won’t see them. And if they do, the Mayor will have solved his problem. Out of sight, out of mind.