I Pledge Allegiance. . .

Sermon preached at St. Mark’s EpiscopalChurch
Proper 23, Year B: Mark 10:17-31

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. . .”  Many of us can remember standing beside our desks, reciting these words together every morning at school.  It is part ritual but, more than that, it is a statement of who we are and what we stand for as a citizen of this country. 
In today’s Gospel a man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He is a good man.  He obeys the commandments. He doesn’t murder, he’s not an adulterer, a thief, or a liar.  He honors his parents.  He is, in short, a law-abiding Jew.  A good man.  So, I can only imagine his surprise and dismay when Jesus tells him there is yet one more thing he must do – he must sell all that he owns and give the money to the poor.  Then, he should come and follow Jesus.[1]  This man has pledged his allegiance to the rules of his faith.  And, in his actions, he is a faithful man.  But, Jesus points to what is missing in the man – a willingness to have his heart converted and to pledge allegiance to God’s transforming love. 
It’s a tough lesson and we, the Church, have spent years trying to soft pedal the lesson.  We’ve suggested it’s a metaphor or that there is something missing from the story – some truth that Jesus knows about this man that we, the readers, are no longer privy too but that earlier readers of the gospel would have known. And later in the passage, when Jesus explains to his disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” we’ve tried to explain that away as well saying, “it’s not about a sewing needle but simply a common name – the Needle Gate - for a gate in Jerusalem” – in other words, it’s not that hard to get through!  But, no matter how we parse it, such attempts are not true to the text.  The hard truth is that you and I, like the man in the story, may be unwilling to hear Jesus’ invitation, may be unwilling to whole-heartedly follow Jesus.
We have become so accustomed to our pledge of allegiance to our country and to its value of consumerism that we are stuck when it comes to this word from Jesus.  Philosopher Charles Taylor has suggested that “Consumerism. . . has become the only universally available mode of participation in the cult of modern society.”[2]  This is a pretty bold claim – but if you doubt it think of the temptation – given in to or not – to purchase the latest, greatest gadget be that a car, a television or an even smarter Smart phone – even when making such a purchase results in debt.  This is a system that has us in its grips.  Walter Wink, biblical scholar and theologian, describes it this way:  “The economic system is greedy on our behalf” and so “the quest for a private solution is futile.”[3]  The economic system is greedy and “we are contending against the greed, including our own, reified into systemic solidarity by a host of persons over a long span of time.”[4]  And it is a system that is at odds with the Gospel.  There is no way to soft-pedal this one. 
So, what do we do?  Do we, like the rich man, walk away grieving because of our many possessions?  Do we look to the disciples and let them stand in for us – after all, they left everything to come and follow Jesus.  Maybe if we acknowledge their saintliness and confess our own willingness to be that saintly, it will be enough.  Do we simply wring our hands and give up all hope?  Or do we take some time to consider:  to what or to whom do I pledge my allegiance?  Might we look at our behaviors and ask honestly, “am I going through the motions of faithful living – coming to church on Sunday morning, praying before meals, reading the Bible at least sometimes – am I going through the motions” or, am I letting my heart be changed, allowing myself to be converted by the love of Jesus?  Because it is possible to follow all the rules of the faith and still not be converted by God’s love. 
This morning we are going to welcome Henry Lewis Babbitt into the household of God through the waters of baptism. We are going to show Henry that the waters through which we enter this community are the waters of conversion, they are the waters of change, they are the waters of love.  And they are the waters of invitation – God’s invitation to let our hearts be changed by a new truth – by a truth that says, you are not blessed because of what you do and you are not blessed because of what you have, you are blessed because of God.  You are loved because of God.  You are welcomed because of God.  You are made new because of God. 
What will you do with that blessing?  How will we show Henry what converted hearts look like?  How will we prepare ourselves so that the next time a person comes through our doors and wonders what the waters of baptism can do for them, they won’t have to ask because they’ll be able to experience it firsthand by watching and listening and being with those of us have already experienced the blessing of those life changing waters?  What one step in faith are you willing to take today in order to open your heart more fully to the invitation of Jesus to come and follow; to open your heart more fully to the baptism you have already received?  What one step in faith is St. Mark’s being called to take in order to open our hearts more fully to the invitation of Jesus to come and follow? 

“Hope of the world, thou Christ of great compassion, 
speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent. 
Save us, thy people, from consuming passion, 
who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.

Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven,
bringing to hungry souls the bread of life,
still let thy Spirit unto us be given
to heal earth’s wounds and end her bitter strife.

Hope of the world, afoot on dusty highways,
showing to wandering souls the path of light,
walk thou beside us lest the tempting byways
lure us away from thee to endless night.

Hope of the world, O Christ, o’er death victorious,
who by this sign didst conquer grief and pain,
we would be faithful to thy gospel glorious;
thou art our Lord! Thou dost for ever reign!”[5] Amen.

[1] Mark 10:17-22.
[2] In Walter Wink, “Unmasking the Powers,” Preaching the Word, accessed October 8, 2015.
[3] Wink.
[4] Wink.
[5] Georgia Harkness, “Hope of the World,” (The Hymn Society, 1954) in The Hymnal 1982 according to the use of The Episcopal Church, (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 1985), #472 (vv. 1-3, 5).