Mark 10: 28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!” 29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Against the backdrop of the stainless steel sink she was cleaning, it looked just like a dirty gray piece of grit. Oddly enough though, it wouldn’t wash down the drain with the water from the hose attachment. Not that she wasn’t trying. So she reached in with her left hand to push it down the drain, when, at the very last moment, she noticed that something was missing from her wedding ring. Just as that dirty gray piece of grit hung on the lip of the drain, with soapy water swirling around it, she realized that it was the 14 carat diamond from the ring that her husband had given her on her wedding day. Fortunately, she just managed to stop its slide down the drain with the sponge in her right hand. And so she saved a treasure from going down the tubes.
The woman who recounted this true story to me was a maid who worked at the time share condominium resort where Becky and I lived during the first year of our marriage, near Jackson, Wyoming. I was the maintenance man. Her story has long stuck with me as an example of how our perception of the worth of something can change so greatly, depending on the situation. Against a gray, stainless steel sink, a sparkling diamond looked like just another piece of grit. So much of our perception depends upon perspective.
And so it is with church. Including this church. In some parts of America, there’s literally a church on every corner. Until a few years ago, there was a church just down the block at the corner of 26th and Columbus Ave., where the Children’s Hospital Parking Lot now stands. If we gather here every week, and have done so for more than a few years, then its easy to think, “We’re just going to church, like every Sunday (will it be over in time for the Vikings game?).” I especially notice this with many young people who tell me, “Jesus is cool; I’m all for him; but where does church come in? Why does church even matter?”
Right. What is the big deal about church? Our annual membership covenant renewal service is the time to answer that question and ponder anew the value of church, this church, and the covenants and commitments that we make to God and each other. I hope that by the end of this message we are aware of the precious and tremendous value of what God has given us in each other, and in our covenants, commitments and accountability to one another. I hope we are amazed anew at the priceless value of the church of Christ, including this particular church.
Lest we forget, we only need talk with those among us who were forbidden in Ethiopia not so long ago from gathering freely to worship. And that’s precisely what Jesus is reminding his disciples of in today’s Gospel passage: just what a true treasure he’s giving them, especially in each other. His words speak to at least two really basic needs that come with being human on Planet Earth. They are identity and security.
If we haven’t thought about those two things lately, (identity and security) if we can take them for granted, thanks be to God. That’s not the case among the 44 million-and-rising refugees, asylum seekers, displaced and sometimes even stateless persons in the world, as have been, or are, some of the people in this very sanctuary today. Such are some of the people whom I have come to know through Urban Ventures, in this very neighborhood. Single mothers especially, without documentation, whose husbands have left them or been deported, trying to keep a roof over their heads and their children from going hungry, with family back in Central or South America, who have no legal status in this country. But there’s no going back to where they came from, not with the druglords and war lords and paramilitary thugs running their communities, not with depressed economies and hunger stalking their neighborhoods.
But for all they have suffered and lost, they have not turned their backs on God. If anything, they say “I have lost so much, that if I were to lose God and the church too, what would I have left? Who would I even be?” And so the last in this world’s esteem are often the first in faith.
They remind me of Peter, when he cries out, “Lord, we’ve left everything to follow you!” His outburst follows on the heels of Jesus’ challenging statement, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The very image of trying to squeeze such a big hairy beast through such a tiny space is an example of Jesus’ sense of humor. But for Peter, its leads to a panic attack. It upends and reverses everything the disciples had grown up thinking about identity and security: that having the right identity, and more than enough security, especially financial security, were always and automatically signs of God’s favor, now and in the world to come. What Jesus said by contrast was so arresting and shocking and challenging to conventional wisdom that its almost as though the disciples have suddenly found themselves stateless persons, driven from their mental and religious homes. If the first shall be last, and the last first, and if persecution may be part of the price, then just what planet are we on anymore?
The good news in today’s Gospel passage is that God wants for us lasting and unshakable identity and security in this world and in the world to come. The good news also is that the church is the colony, or the embassy, the demonstration plot, of such a world. But the bad news is that we so often look for identity and security in the wrong places. And when we think we’ve found them, there’s no guarantee that they’ll last even in this life. For example, some of us here are just a few generations descended from ancestors who thought they had found a secure home and a respected identity in the German colonies of Ukraine. But when the Czar told them to become Russian and send their sons into his army, the first of many stateless German Mennonites and Hutterites began showing up here as refugees and stateless persons in the 1870’s.
So before we can fully appreciate and enjoy the unshakeable and everlasting security and identity that Jesus gives, sometimes Jesus has to challenge and take down our faith in the security and the identity that this fallen world offers. That he did when he said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. That he did when he said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” That he did when he said, “Expect persecution as part of the price.”
There are more startling differences. Dollar signs are not the only measure of security or worth. The wealth and security that Jesus is talking about come not through hoarding, but through sharing. We are only as wealthy as our care and concern for one another. Our security is in our our commitment and accountability one to another. We are rich then because of what and how much we share with one another. Like when different Mennonite groups got together at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, in Elkhart, Indiana, to organize material and spiritual aid for those dispossessed Mennonites coming from Ukraine. That means that today, at Emmanuel Mennonite Church, we are as wealthy as our contribution to neighborhood food shelters. We are as secure as is our deacons’ fund, which we use for mutual aid.
Both can always use a little help, by the way.
This new and eternal security is based not on what we own, but on who owns us. For God is the owner and the giver of everything that Jesus mentions as wealth in today’s passage: “home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields.” The earth and creation, family and relationships, and a roof over our heads, a place to call home, we are merely renters, borrowers of such things.
As for our new, unshakeable identity, it is not based on who we are, but on whose we are. In a moment, members of Emmanuel Mennonite Church will make certain commitments to God, as in “by the grace of God and for God’s glory. Amen.” Our identity, then, is not our own creation; there are no self-made people in the kingdom of God. First and foremost, we belong to God. Our identity is forged in relationship, in relationship to God.
But we will also be making these promises and renewing our commitments to each other, when we shall say, “I commit myself to this local gathering of His body, Emmanuel Mennonite Church.” So whose are we? We are also each other’s.Again, no self-made people: our identity is forged in community. It is also based in the faith and the mission we share. That’s why members recommit not just to membership every year, but to “our stated mission.”
There is no contradiction in those two commitments; our covenant relationship with God and with each other are two sides of the same coin. What is a kingdom without subjects and citizens? But more than subjects or citizens, Jesus calls us “brothers, sisters and mothers,” and promises us a hundredfold more of those than the “brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers,” who might have left us when we joined his kingdom.
Its interesting, by the way, that Jesus doesn’t say that we get new“fathers,” in his kingdom, because we share his Abba Father God.
We could say, then, that the kingdom of God is as much a family as it is a kingdom. That makes us spiritual kin, “the kin-dom of God.” I only need remember the time that I lost track of our little daughter Claire in a crowd to feel how precious family and kin are. Or the person at Urban Ventures who told me that her beloved grandfather in her home country had just died, and what compounded her grief was that there was no going back to mourn with the family. And that’s what I’m trying to help us appreciate anew this morning on the verge of renewing our membership covenant vows: the value of this family, this kin-dom of God. This treasure is exceedingly precious to God, more so than we can understand; it cost him the life and blood of Jesus.
I want us to consider and to marvel anew at the everlasting and all-excelling treasure we have in each other, as both the local church and the global church. Our personal covenant relationships with God are bound together with our covenant relationship with each other. Out of both relationships we derive the treasures of identity and security. So, let us continue investing in this treasure, with our prayers, our labors, our time and our substance. And let us draw from its storehouse, whenever we need help, prayer and friendship, as our membership covenant calls us to do.