The Reverend Amy Spagna

A Good Roman and Unexpected Possibilities

A Good Roman and Unexpected Possibilities


The Rev. Amy Spagna
Pentecost 2C (Proper 4) - May 29, 2016
Luke 7:1-10
“When [the centurion] heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking
him to come and heal his slave.” (Luke 7:3, NRSV)
It’s a familiar story, one which is repeated in some way or another throughout the
Gospel accounts of Jesus’ early ministry. Someone from outside of Jesus’ inner circle of
hears about what he’s been up to, and asks for his help. Jesus’ fame has grown
exponentially at this early stage of his public ministry, thanks in no small part to the people
he’s fed and healed, and the sermons he’s preached. It seems like everyone wants a piece of
him. The centurion, whom we never meet face-to-face, is not all that different from anyone
else who seeks Jesus’ attention. His method is much less direct than those who threw
themselves across Jesus’ path and begged for mercy. He first sends some of the Jewish
elders with whom he’s been working, and then, when Jesus gets close to his house, he sends
some of his friends to ask for him. And all of them give the same glowing recommendations
about this centurion’s character and why he deserves Jesus’ help.
I have to admit, his indirect way of going about it reminds me a little bit of being in
middle school and how boys would try to approach girls whom they liked. (For context, this
was in the late 1980s in the South, so attempting to ask anyone of the same gender to go for
ice cream or to the school dance was an absolute no-no.) You can probably picture how it
went: the boy sends one of his friends, and/or one of her friends, to ask her, instead of
doing it himself. Maybe it’s because he’s too scared she’ll say no, or blow him off in some
way, or otherwise reject him, and to have his trusted friends deliver that blow is easier. I
don’t know. But I do remember how it happened to one of my best friends… and she said
no, to a soft-spoken boy a year older than she who was in her band class and played the
trumpet. The boy, to my knowledge, never risked talking to her again, and life went on. She
didn’t give it another thought until recently, and messaged me on Facebook with a, “hey, do
you remember that time when I told that kid I wouldn’t go with him because I didn’t know
who he was?” She’d heard through the grapevine recently that he was doing well, and was
wondering if maybe she’d missed out on a shot at being friends with a really great person
all those years ago.
Our centurion wasn’t exactly in search of a dinner date, nor are we told whether he
had the same what-if type questions after this encounter with Jesus. We don’t even know
the fate of the slave, other than that the centurion’s emissaries found him in good health
when they got back to the house afterward. However, a happy ending for the characters
themselves isn’t the point of this episode. That someone can possess – and act on – faith in
God while falling clearly outside of the socially acceptable parameters for that faith, is. This
was a huge issue in the early Church. There was a faction known as the “Judaizers” which
held that one had to be Jewish in order to have a proper faith in Christ. If one wasn’t, full
conversion, including circumcision for males, was required before one could be baptized.
There was another faction, whose leaders included Paul and likely the writer of Luke and
Acts, which said that no, God’s grace and a person’s faith in Christ were more than adequate
prerequisites for inclusion in the Church.
This passage is one of the places where the tension between the two groups shows
up – along with a challenge to push the boundaries of the community outward. For a while,
the Judaizers’ somewhat narrow point of view prevailed. It would have been a shock to
them that someone decidedly outside of the boundaries of the Jewish community could
possibly have the kind of deeply authentic faith which would lead him or her to ask Jesus
for help – and get it.
The centurion was probably what we’d call a “lifer.” A career enlisted man, his rank
in the Roman army was roughly the equivalent of a master sergeant. He commanded a
group of 80-100 other soldiers, known as a cohort, but was also accountable to those
officers higher up in the chain of command. He’s one of the good Romans, who gets along
really well with the Jewish elders. He even built a synagogue for them. His respect also
extends to observing parts of the Law. He doesn’t dare to risk inviting Jesus into his home
because of the risk of Jesus’ becoming ritually unclean. Hence the multiple emissaries and
their request that Jesus not trouble himself on the centurion’s behalf.
Yes, this centurion clearly has clues about how to work within the prevailing
cultural norms where he serves. The one thing we might find a bit offensive about him is
the fact he owns at least one slave. While our modern sensibilities might question him for
it, it would not have been unusual for a man of his standing to have at least one or two
slaves as part of his household. Most of Luke’s original readers would probably shrug it off
as a normal part of life. That is, as long as the slaves were treated well, which it seems that
this particular one is. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t wonder about the
centurion’s motives in seeking out Jesus’ assistance in healing him of his illness in the first
place. Does he only want to ensure his property will keep producing income on his behalf
for a long time? Does he regard the slave as an equal, and wants to help him out as friends
do for each other? Does he want to test Jesus on behalf of his Roman superiors? Or is it
something else?1
Regardless of his motives, it’s clear that the centurion has a great deal of respect for
Jesus. As one who is both under authority and possesses it over others, the centurion is
able to acknowledge Jesus as someone who operates under similar circumstances.2 This is
in direct contrast to the people at his home synagogue in Nazareth, who had all but run him
out of town on a rail a few chapters back when he tried to tell them who he really was. It is
also one of the first hints we receive from Luke about the universality of Jesus’ nature and
message. Faith in him, and its benefits, are not limited to a select few. He’s for everyone,
regardless of whether they have Jewish heritage or not. His willingness to engage with the
centurion serves to push the boundaries defining the community of faith outward. In giving
voice to the marginalized – in this case, the slave, and possibly the centurion as well – he
drives home the point that our connections to one another are far more important than
strictly adhering to the rules which produce sharp definitions around who’s “in” and who’s
“out.” They are the key to our shared, lived reality. We need each other, to put it simply.
And despite what our stiff-upper-lip New England culture tells us, it is not a source of
failure or shame to admit it. We require the the larger community, including the
community of faith, to speak with and for us, and to help us name what is just and hold us
accountable.3
1 Verlee A. Copeland, “Homiletical Perspective: Luke 7:1-10.” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost
and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2010), 95.
2 David Lose, “Unexpected Faith.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2592.
3 M. Jan Holton, “Pastoral Perspective: Luke 7:1-10.” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and
Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2010), 96.
This is exactly the point which the evil King Ahab in today’s Old Testament lesson,
and the community St. Paul addresses in his Letter to the Galatians, have missed. Both Jesus
and the Roman centurion understand it completely. We can’t go it alone. Nor can we simply
dismiss someone out of hand because they don’t fit within our preconceived notions of
who’s properly included. We too run the very real risk of missing out on something
fantastic, when we fail to stop and consider the unexpected possibilities when they’re
presented to us. We don’t just miss the possibility for new relationships like the one my
friend short-circuited all those year ago. We lose out on the chance for God to work in and
through us, and for lives to be changed as as a result. It’s precisely this kind of openness to
new possibilities which allows for the slave’s healing, as well as for Jesus to turn the tables
on society. His actions clearly say to them that even this slave, and his master, who is
unable to come talk to Jesus himself, are worthy of the love he is shown. “I tell you, not even
in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9, NRSV)

Peter's Buffet

The Rev. Amy Spagna Easter 5C – April 24, 2016 Acts 11:1-­‐‑18,   John 13:31-­‐‑35

 

When I was in elementary school, I was a proud card-­‐‑carrying member of the Lunchbox Crew. The privilege of buying lunch in the cafeteria, instead of bringing it from home, was a rare treat. Usually that meant my sainted mother hadn’t had time to bake bread for sandwiches. Regardless, the dollar she handed me on the way out the door on those days meant getting to savor the opportunity to stand in line with the other kids, peering over the sneeze guards to see what the cafeteria ladies were serving up. One of their more wonderful offerings was a triple-­‐‑decker peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the best any kid could want – the kind where the peanut butter oozes out the sides and the middle layer of bread somehow just got subsumed into what it was trying to hold together. On one non-­‐‑lunchbox day when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I had my heart set on one of those PB&J’s, so much so I could almost taste those gooey layers by the time our class’ lunchtime rolled around. So you can imagine my shock and horror when there magically appeared on my tray… a meatball sub. Meatballs?! On a hot dog bun?! What a disaster! Now, I’d been taught to accept what I was served gratefully, but by the time the line snaked its way up to the cash register, I was really distraught. How could I possibly eat such a thing as a meatball sandwich, even though I was having trouble finding the words to ask for what I really wanted?

We find Peter in more or less the same spot today. While he’s not standing in a school cafeteria line, he does have to try to make sense out of something which, at first glance, doesn’t make much sense at all. He’s had a vision, from God, in which he’s presented with a buffet of proteins to make any chef envious. However, there is nothing on that buffet which he can eat, thanks to his adherence to Jewish dietary laws. If he touches any of it, he will become ritually unclean. It’s absolutely repulsive, and unthinkable to him, until the voice from heaven tells him 3 times that he can have whatever he wants, without penalty. Once Peter snaps out of the trance which produced this vision, he’s puzzled. While he does know there’s a real-­‐‑world application for what he’s just seen, initially he is not sure what that is. His confusion is only lifted after three messengers arrive, and ask him to go and visit with the Roman centurion Cornelius. While he is a Gentile, Cornelius is, by all accounts, an, “upright and God-­‐‑fearing man, who is well-­‐‑spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (Acts10:22, NRSV). The very next day, Peter goes with these messengers to meet with Cornelius. What he finds is exactly as the messengers describe: a Gentile who has come to believe in Christ, and whom Peter can find no reason not to baptize.

When Peter returns to Jerusalem, and has to report all this to community there, the consequences are nothing less than staggering. The conservative Jewish Christians who made up most of the membership were uneasy at best when it came to interacting with Gentiles. However, Peter’s story serves to completely change their understanding of who Jesus is, including who Jesus is FOR. The vision of the buffet, along with the baptism of Cornelius, vision has hammers home the theme that Jesus is for EVERYONE, regardless of whatever heritage they may claim. Peter is among the first to recognize that it does not matter: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

It’s a devastating realization for him, and for those who were listening… because it requires changing, fundamentally, their understanding of “community” – beginning and ending with the God who was the reason for its being. The Early Church really struggled with the issue of who should be included as a “real” follower of Jesus. Fortunately for us, they were led to the conclusion that the old rules about belonging didn’t hold water any more. They’ve been superseded by Jesus’ death and resurrection – events which served to open up yet another pathway to God for anyone who came to believe in him.

This episode also serves to demonstrate how Peter, and the rest of the disciples, have taken Jesus’ final commandment to love one another to a whole new level. By hearing, and acting on, God’s direction to welcome Gentiles into their community, they’ve pushed its boundaries outward. They’ve put into practice the realization that this commandment is not intended only as the introduction to a long, final lecture given to a select group of graduate students. The Resurrection, and subsequent spreading of Jesus’ message throughout the world like wildfire, have transformed into a do-­‐‑or-­‐‑die thing. Peter’s vision only reinforces the reality that there is no choice in loving one another in the same way God loves us. It is THE requirement for joining the ragtag group of disciples which had gathered to break bread with Jesus. Of course, there is one small catch. The kind of love Jesus talks about here is the kind God shows for the world, not the friendly kind of affection you and I might feel for each other. The English language does not easily distinguish between them.

However, there are two different verbs for “love” in Greek: phileo, to be fond of others as I am fond of my human friends; and agapao, to love another to the point of death, as God loves us. Jesus uses agapao appears three times in delivering this final directive. The repetition serves to hammer home that his intention – and that of his Father -­‐‑ is that his disciples love one another with the same reckless abandon as he does.  To do so does not mean entertaining a sweet, sentimental feeling. Instead, it requires taking the action of putting one’s love into a lived context.1

For Jesus, that meant allowing himself to be murdered in a very public and brutal way, and then allowing God to take care of the rest. Peter’s realization, not all that long afterward, points to how the consequences are universal, and not limited to a group of people which had come to believe in God in a particular way. God’s love is given freely, without being restricted to a specially chosen group of people, and at the expense of others. In Peter’s context, that means it applies to those who do not share his Jewish heritage. And, it’s up to him to help open the doors and welcome them into the Christian community. It’s a really audacious claim to say that God chose everyone, not just a small group. By making it, Peter runs the real risk of getting the boot from his leadership position, having people call him a heretic, or worse. Fortunately for him, his audience believes him, and is willing to act on the basis of that belief. But, it doesn’t come without a fundamental change in their understanding of God’s very nature – a change which can be very tough to process on an intellectual level. That tough processing can all but shut down the rest of the system while it’s happening. Once it’s done, however, what we’re left with is a way of being which has a tendency to make us so much more than what we are – if only we will allow God to take what we have, bless it, break and share it.

Embracing this new kind of life is inherently risky. It involves far more than just whether we get meatballs when we want a PB&J (and didn’t tell anyone about it!), or whether we can go right ahead and pick up that lobster with a side of   bacon-­‐‑wrapped

1 Karyn Wiseman, “Commentary on John 13:31-­‐‑35.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1621

scallops. We risk that our long-­‐‑held assumptions about who we are, both as a community and as individuals, might be challenged and overturned. Despite the new and improved version we get back in the process, losing a piece of our identity is no picnic. We are still challenged to engage with people who are, for all intents and purposes, outsiders of one sort or another. Just as Peter was, we are called to be very deliberate about including them. They are EVERYWHERE – most especially, they are the ones who don’t look, or talk, or act like us, or who aren’t “from here.” What we lose in daring to be in authentic relationship with them is our own fear over how the peanut butter will be chunky when we expected creamy, or the jelly will be grape when we wanted strawberry. Instead, we get so much more: the endless buffet of knowing, serving, and loving other people as God loves us.

And He Lived Happily Ever After....

... And He Lived Happily Ever After The Rev. Amy Spagna
October 25, 2015
Pentecost 22B Job 42:1-6. 10-17

One of the TV shows you’ll find on my DVR is the HBO series Last Week Tonight. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s similar to its cousins The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in how it looks at the week’s news through the lens of satire. One of Last Week Tonight’s features is a lengthy essay segment which explores a variety of cultural topics, ranging from food waste to discrimination against minority groups. Several weeks ago, the host of the show, an Englishman by the name of John Oliver, used this time to explore the so-called prosperity Gospel, including how some televangelists manage to raise exorbitant amounts of money by preaching it. This questionable piece of theology holds that what we give to the Church will eventually come back to us, in the form of wealth that’s been greatly multiplied. The promise usually goes something like this: if you give $50 as your “seed faith,” you’ll harvest far more back in return. It’s a little bit like the parable of the mustard seed, except it lacks the part about how that planted seed has to be properly cared for if it’s to grow into something green and fragrant.

To learn more about how this “prosperity Gospel” supposedly works, Oliver decided to invest in one of the television ministries preaching it. He sent the church a letter, along with a donation of $20. Over the course of the next seven months, Oliver received over thirty form letters from the church’s senior pastor in return. The second of these letters contained a dollar bill, and instructed him to send it back with his, “best prove God tithes or your best offering” of an additional $37. (Yes, that’s a quote directly from the actual letter.) Oliver’s comment was, “It’s like being pen pals with someone who’s in bad with a loan shark.He then went on to describe how all of the letters instructed him to return the contents, along with another donation. No matter what was in the envelope and there was some truly bizarre stuff, including a dollar bill which Oliver was instructed to put into a Bible overnight, and then return in exchange for yet another a dollar bill which had been specially blessed the instructions, and the pitch, were the same: “Keep sending us your money, and you’ll get even more in return!”1

That pitch, and the empty promises underlying it, sound more than a little bit like the explanations Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar tried to give him after he lost everything. They spend far too much time trying to convince him that not only is he to blame for his suffering, but also that he alone has the power to fix it. It isn’t hard to imagine them taking the step of telling Job he has to go see the priests at the Temple to properly atone for whatever he’s done – or at least, to let them do it on his behalf. “You know it’s your fault, Job but we can help! Just send us to the temple with the one last shekel you have there in your pocket, and we’ll give it to the priest for you. THAT will make God happy. Then you can put this whole mess behind you and just get on with your life.

1 Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, “Televangelists,Episode 49. [Original airdate: August 16, 2015]. YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y1xJAVZxXg [accessed October 19, 2015].

Of course, that’s not how it works. At least in part because of the transformation Job has undergone, it is VERY dangerous to look at this “happily ever after” strictly from the point of view of the material wealth God restores to him. To do so is a gross oversimplification, not to mention reduces his struggles to the level of the absurd. As Job himself says over and over again, he’s not as interested in getting back his stuff as much as he is in getting an answer to what God is up to. At least, the happily ever after begs the question of what the whole point of this exercise in suffering is. It’s not a matter of needing to remind people of the fact that suffering is part of the human condition, or to raise questions about the causes and the nature of that suffering. Instead, it’s about how we perceive God’s power and presence within the bounds of our relationship with God. Until we, like Job, can recognize the extreme imbalance there, we too will be left on our ash heaps with nothing more than a potsherd for comfort.

Job’s encounter with God has left him with virtually nothing, except for the faith which generates his complaints. As we heard last week, God is very quick to disarm Job’s whining: Gird up your loins like a man, and I will answer you. Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?(Job 38:3-4, NRSV) Job can only answer this charge one way, and that is by admitting he hasn’t seen God for who God really is. It’s at this point when we see the change that this encounter has brought about in Job. When faced with his status as mere dust and ashes, he can do nothing, except to pause and recognize just how little he really understands about God. The very terms of the relationship have been changed. We can hear it in how Job’s tone softens. Instead of demanding an answer, he simply states the parameters of this relationship: “I will question you, and you will declare to me” (Job 42:4, NRSV).

It is worth noting that Job’s repentance in no way equals an acceptance of God’s judgment, or an admission that he has sinned.2 The Hebrew word translated as “repent” can also mean “recant” or “despise.” I’m also told the Hebrew does not make entirely clear what Job has recanted, or what he despises. The best guess is that it’s his former attitude of taking God’s presence, and the blessings which go along with it, for granted. What he learns, despite the lack of an answer to his question of, “why me?” is there is far more to God and God’s presence than anything he could possibly have imagined.

It’s precisely because of this change that God restores Job’s fortunes. It’s easy to interpret this act as God’s somehow returning the favor for all of Job’s suffering – or, as the letters John Oliver received from the televangelist put it, Job has harvested all the “seeds” he has planted through his faith. What the editors of the lectionary have left out is that this restoration begins with Job’s so-called friends, in their role as community leaders. Listen to what God tells them:

“After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the

2 Dale P. Andrews, “Homiletical Perspective: Job 42:1-6, 10-17.” Feasting on the Word. Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17 Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 197.

truth about Me as did My servant Job. Now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to My servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. And let Job, my servant, pray for you; for to him I will show favor and not treat you vilely, since you have not spoken the truth about Me as did my servant Job.” (Job 42:8-9, JPS)

As leaders, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are called to make this sacrifice on behalf of the whole community. It is the action as prescribed in Leviticus as an appropriate remedy for their having sinned without knowing it. For his part, Job’s prayers are meant to remind him that he, “... must show the empathy that [his friends] had not shown, and leaving his cocoon of self-interest and self-pity.”3 He has to show that his transformation is a permanent one. His prayers on behalf of the community are what we might recognize as an act of radical forgiveness. At the least, they are the actions of a man who has come to see and know that God’s presence in the world is far bigger than the well-intentioned and often trite sentiments offered up by his friends.

The encounter with God is the REAL “happily ever after,” not the restoration of Job’s property, the gift of ten more children, and a lifespan of 140 years. It still comes at a price. It isn’t a matter of pouring colored oil onto a piece of paper and slipping it into the mail, along with a check for $19.95, or even what it costs God in terms of grace to do this. Instead, it’s about what it costs Job to invest heavily again in his family as he knows what it’s like to lose it all.4 He can bear all the what-ifs and worst-case scenarios of this risk because of his faithfulness. He has learned that there is not some kind of proportional relationship between the suffering he has faced and any kind of reward he can expect to receive, either in this life or the life to come.

If there’s anything we can learn from Job, it’s that God is present in the suffering which is part of the human condition. All that is required of us is to turn and look for God there, instead of trusting in the empty promise of a quick fix or an overly simple explanation which attempts to place blame somewhere. Those are the wrong questions to be asking or, if you will, the wrong place to put our money. What we should be asking instead is how to be present to, and with, people who are experiencing some kind of hardship. That’s really what we’re doing when we pledge our time, our talent, and our treasure to this community. It’s a pledge to show up, as God shows up, and not to try to convince our friends that their suffering is something which can be fixed without our help. That pledge does not cost us any more than its face value, nor does it have to be put into the mail with additional donations to prove our sincerity. Instead, following Jesus’ lead, we
take it, give thanks for it, and trust that God will make it into something wondrous.

3 Mayer Gruber, “Job Commentary.” The Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Editors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1561-2.
4 Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 2001), 142.

Mother Amy: "Giving Up On Privilege" Pentecost 20B (Proper 23)

 October 11, 2015 Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22:1-15, Mark 10:17-31

If you’ve been listening closely to the readings chosen for today, it seems as if they have given us all the ingredients for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, no matter which way you cut it. First we have Job, who is once again trying to explain to his friends that the horrible predicament he’s in is not his fault. He cant even find God to ask the burning question of, Why me?and it frightens him. Following that is the Psalmist’s plaintive cry that she or he is in big trouble and there is no one to help. And THEN, to top it all off, we have the story of a rich young man who can’t deal with Jesus’ instructions to go and sell all his possessions and donate the proceeds to the poor. It is not what he expected in return for his piety. The shock of hearing that he hasnt been doing things right all along all leaves him unable to do anything other than leave in tears. For better or for worse, he is the only one who has any ability to fix it.

Just like many of us at times, this young man cant quite come to grips with the idea of giving up his many possessions. It isn’t the stuff itself so much as it is his attitude towards it. Just as it was with Job, it is all too easy to think that his material wealth is a tangible sign of Gods blessing, regardless of what he’s done with it. Also like most of us, this young man is faithful, at least when it comes to his obedience to the Law. Keeping all the commandments is an essential piece to maintaining his relationship with God. It’s just the right way to live and, it definitely has its rewards, as evidenced by his status as one of societys elites.

These two things, material wealth and slavish obedience to the Law, are the only things which seem to matter to this young man, and to so many of the other people who approach Jesus. It could not have been easy for them to hear that a great deal of what they took for granted wasnt quite right. However, Jesus NEVER tells his questioners not to follow the rules. He simply wants them to remember that those rules are rooted in the need for connection with one’s fellow human beings. It’s in this area that the rich young man has gone off the rails a bit. Jesus’ instruction to him to sell everything he owns is intended to force him to pay attention to those outside his immediate sphere of influence. He can only get access to that region beyond if he isn’t burdened by the many possessions he has. The implications of Jesus’ words are clear: sharing in the hardships and need of one’s fellow human beings is a requirement for life in the Kingdom.1 Or, as St. Paul would later remind the Christian community to whom he addressed his Letter to Galatians, the Law doesnt matter nearly as much as their faith in Christ. At the end of a long rant about slavish obedience to the Law, he writes, For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14, NRSV)

Love of neighbor is precisely where the rich young man has come up short. His wealth is NOT the problem in and of itself. Jesus never says it is. However, what Jesus DOES point out is the huge burden brought on by the young mans apparent failure to use that wealth to benefit his neighbors who dont have as much as he does. Changing his behavior requires giving something up, something he clearly values greatly. It means prioritizing people and relationships over both his stuff and his social status. No, it’s not an easy thing to do not for the rich young man, and not for us now.

However you define it, privilege still has a tendency to blind us to the needs of the people around us. I experienced quite a bit of this during my time in Pennsylvania. While our church was nestled among the lovely Victorian homes in the historic district of downtown Bethlehem, and had been for well over a century, the people who came through our doors on most days were decidedly not the sorts who might live in one of those houses. You see, the church hosts a feeding program five days a week. It was started in the early 1980s by a group of parishioners who simply could not ignore the cold and hungry people they often saw hanging out on the street corner just two blocks away. In the intervening years, it has grown from a team of three serving soup on the tailgate of a station wagon to a restaurant-like operation which serves an average of 150 lunches per day.

As you can probably imagine, many of the neighbors who live in the historic homes are not too happy to have those peoplelined up on the sidewalk outside the church every day and, they dont hesitate to let the staff know about it. The loudest complainer I encountered was the owner of a bed and breakfast at the end of our block. One day, when I was the only clergy person in the building to supervise lunch, he angrily marched himself right down the street and started yelling at some of the guests who were waiting in line. I went outside to check out the commotion, and immediately became the target for this mans anger. I think one of them,he spat, relieved himself in my yard. If I point him out to you, youre going to call the cops for me. You have to control these people, because theyre homeless and theyre ruining our neighborhood.He was not at all interested in my explanation to the effect that all we could do is put the word out to our guests as to what had happened and that calling the police was actually the innkeepers responsibility. Nor was he interested in actually TALKING with the guys milling around and smoking on the sidewalk in front of the church. If he had, he would have found they were mostly harmless, though mostly down on their luck for one reason or another. Sadly, the innkeepers desire to protect his property only served to short-circuit any possibility of being in relationship with the church or the people it serves. And so he stomped off down the block, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Just as it is with the rich young man, the innkeeper’s privileged position in the neighborhood is not really the issue. What is, is how that privilege is used. The question we should be asking where its concerned is this: is it something we hoard only for ourselves, or do we share it with another person who doesn’t have as much?

This need to share points to how our faith requires us to take action. That is, all of those rules we learn in Sunday School are more than just something we are to spout back at our teachers on demand. This is exactly the point Jesus is trying to make: if, for whatever reason, we aren’t able to act on the two greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbors, it makes it that much harder for the Kingdom of God to take root and grow. It seems like a lot to ask at times, especially when it requires us to be deliberate about maintaining relationships with people we might not otherwise even consider talking to.

However, Jesus is asking no more of the rich young man, and all of us, than was being asked of himself in that moment.2 That request is simply to pour out a little of who we are on someone else’s behalf. It will probably not, for most of us, mean the sacrifice of our lives on a cross. What it might involve are things along the lines of sharing our resources with those who don’t have them; or actively promoting and encouraging the leadership of people who don’t traditionally occupy those positions; or perhaps, as many people in our diocese are doing now, trying to understand more fully how their ancestors may have been involved in or benefited from in the slave trade. All of these intimately involve connection with others, which is what the rich young man, the innkeeper in Bethlehem, and I would suspect all of us, to some degree, are missing. Making and maintaining these connections is just the beginning. As Jesus tells Peter, the rewards will be great: a hundredfold now, and in the age to come, eternal life.