Sermon by Pastor Kris Tostengard Michel

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Bethlehem has a number of local outreach partners, and one of them is just 14 blocks away at 33rd and Blaisdell. ZOOM House is an apartment building that offers permanent supportive housing for people at risk for or transitioning out of homelessness.

Lily and her 4-year-old son, Michael, live at ZOOM House. Lily emigrated from Ethiopia quite a few years ago, and recently she and Michael moved to ZOOM House in order to leave an abusive situation. Lily is a devout Christian, and she walks across the parking lot to Zion Lutheran Church almost every day to receive communion from Pastor Meta. In the beginning, Lily’s little boy, Michael, would come along and play nearby, and he would listen closely as his mom received communion. Before long, he started to interrupt Pastor Meta as she said the Words of Institution; he’d ask questions like: “Is Jesus in there? Do we both get a piece? Is there enough for everyone?” They’ve been coming for communion for several months now, and Michael can recite the Words of Institution and the Lord’s Prayer. Lily learned the Lord’s Prayer in English by echoing each line after Meta, and now all three of them speak it together. Last week, when Michael was at church with his mom, he approached an office volunteer and said, “We’re going to have communion in a little bit. You should come. There’s always enough.” There it was in the words of a 4-year-old boy: “You should come. There’s always enough.”

We’ve been reading the Gospel of Mark since the beginning of the year, and the story that comes between last week’s reading and today, the one that follows Ash Wednesday, is the story of the conundrum about the children. Parents were bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus, and the disciples said, “Don’t bother him, he’s too busy.” But Jesus said, “Let them come to me. To such as these belongs the kingdom of God.” “You should come,” the little boy said. “There’s always enough.”

Today we begin a new sermon series called, “To what end?” Like the people who encountered Jesus, we want to follow him. We want to see what he’s up to, and we want to be faithful to God’s call on our lives. The Gospel of Mark tells the story of how God came to us in the incarnation and fully invested Godself in a relationship with us. It’s the story of Jesus and his invitation to come along and follow him.

And so it was that day when a rich man came to see Jesus. He was one of the many who had been paying attention to what Jesus said, who had been attracted by this compelling teacher’s words and his authoritative manner. Like others before him, he came and knelt down at the teacher’s feet, earnestly longing for something he believed Jesus could give him. “Good teacher,” he said, “what should I do to inherit life in the age to come?”

“You know the commandments,” Jesus said, “the ones about how to treat other people.”

“Oh yes,” the man said, “I’ve kept those ever since I was a young boy.”

Then Jesus looked at him…and loved him…and said, “There’s just one more thing. Go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. Then, come and follow me.”

The man’s countenance fell. He shook his head and walked away slowly, disoriented and deeply saddened by the teacher’s response. He had worked hard doing the right thing. He had made moral and ethical choices. He had been a good neighbor and a model citizen. And now this – a request that came from out of nowhere: “Give up everything you have – the good stuff – sell it, and give the money to the poor.” He couldn’t do it. It made no sense. He didn’t see that Jesus was inviting him to empty himself to make room for God do something new in him.

In Jesus’ time, possessions were seen as a sign of blessing or favor from God. (In fact, the absence of them was seen as the absence of favor from God.) We, too, see our possessions as blessings, gifts from God. And we prefer to hang onto them because they give us assurance. We need a certain amount of material things to live, after all, and they contribute to our quality of life. But the problem is when we have a lot of material wealth, we get shielded from our need for God and our need for others.

  • When we are surrounded by all the comforts of home, and when our bank accounts reflect a well-planned future, it’s easy to think that we are self-made and that wealth is the source of our security.
  • When there’s plenty of food on the table and when our essential needs are met, it’s easy to overlook the basic needs of others.
  • When little Michael from ZOOM House invited the office volunteer at Zion to join him and his mom and pastor for communion, Michael told her, “You should come. There’s always enough.” It occurred to this little 4-year-old boy to mention that because there isn’t always enough in his life.

When we’re faced with not enough or the uncertainty of whether there will be enough in the future, we gain a different perspective. About 11 years ago, my husband Dave lost his job. Without any warning, the steady stream of income that was essential to our family’s daily lives was cut off. As clearly as if a switch had been flipped, the financial strategy that was going on in my head changed from thinking about what we would be able to do next to thinking about when we would run out….

As scary as it was, I have to say, there was a sense of surrender as we adjusted to our new reality, and it led to a deeper level of trust. Friends took on a new level of importance; we needed them for encouragement. One of my friends said, “You can do this, Kris. You don’t have to buy anything. Really. You can get by without all the stuff.” Another friend met us for a picnic, and as we scoured the kitchen for food, the leftovers in the back of the fridge became a feast when we shared it with her, along with our fears about the future. When our needs were more acute, when the future was uncertain, I sensed a change happening to me.

This past week on Ash Wednesday, we traced the sign of the cross on our foreheads with ashes. It was a reminder of the frailty of our existence and our need for God. It was a reminder of our baptism and how it sends us into the world to share the promises of God’s kingdom to this time and place.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. It’s a time of year when we’re invited to become more introspective, to look closely at the things that separate us from God. From ancient times, Christians have practiced three disciplines to facilitate that: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

  • In this community, we worship more during Lent, we come on Wednesdays for evening prayer, and perhaps our prayer life at home is more disciplined.
  • The other day as people were gathering for Ash Wednesday, I heard several people talking about a form of fasting as they talked about “giving up something for Lent.” Others talked about not eating a noon meal. Last year at this time, Pope Francis encouraged people that if they were going to fast, to fast from indifference to others. Rather than giving up candy or alcohol, he said, why not give up self-centeredness.
  • The third discipline, almsgiving, is sharing our material gifts with others, giving money to the poor.

Each of these practices nudges us to do what Jesus invited the rich man to do – to empty himself enough that God might do something new in him.

In the bulletin insert today there are several concrete ideas for how you might share material gifts with the poor in the weeks ahead, for example:

  • On Saturday, April 2, ZOOM House is hosting a gala to raise funds for this important ministry that offers safety, dignity and stability for families transitioning from or at risk of homelessness in South Minneapolis. Maybe you would like to join Dave and me at the gala (click here for information on the ZOOM gala). It so happens that Minnetonka Lutheran (the congregation with whom we’re becoming one church with two campuses) has a long history of supporting ZOOM House, just as Bethlehem does. The gala could provide a great opportunity to get to know our new partners in ministry at Minnetonka.
  • The ELCA has issued a bold challenge to its congregations to raise $2 million during Lent for World Hunger. Bethlehem itself is hoping to raise $10,000.

We often call the days leading up to Christmas, “the season of giving.” But Lent is another season of giving, one that truly lifts up the needs of the poor. Is this a discipline you might take seriously this year? – not because God needs your money, but because God wants your heart, and there are others who need your support.

A wealthy man came to Jesus and asked him earnestly, “What must I do to inherit the kingdom of God? What more can I do to be part of the God’s reign in the next age?” No one coerced the man. He came willingly because he longed for something more. Jesus’ response was an invitation. “Sell what you have and share it with the poor, then follow me.” The man went away deeply saddened; he couldn’t see through to parting with his wealth. He didn’t see that Jesus was inviting him to make room for God to do something new in him. “How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus said. “Indeed, it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom.” What an absurd image! And then he added, “For mortals, it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.”

We are all invited into relationship with God. Our relationship with God grows not because of what we do or how deserving we are, but because of our need. Jesus healed the sick and ate with sinners. He cast aside the demons – all the things that separate people from God – and he welcomed the undeserving because of their need. Jesus calls us to follow him, too. It comes with no guarantee of an easy life; in fact, it’s almost certain there will be difficulty. But in this age and the next, he promises a home, family and purpose, all we really need. And in the fertile ground of our heart, God will do a new thing, and we’ll grow.

Jesus came announcing that the kingdom of God had come near – that God’s very presence had come close. As he described the kingdom of God and showed us what it looked like, the image took us all by surprise, both then and now, because it’s not what we expect. It’s an upside down kingdom where the last will be first and the first will be last – even children living in poverty will be at the center. It’s an upside down kingdom where God is found in our deepest, darkest moments, when even death on a cross does not have the last word, but life springs from death.

In the kingdom of God, the first will be last, and the last will be first. Those who want to be great will serve, and those who lose their life will find it. Will you come? Will you follow Jesus and find new life? The invitation is to you. Amen.