Mark 10:17-31; What's so bad about being rich? Delivered October 14, 2018

Whenever I read this story, I think of my days as an Associate Pastor with primary responsibility for youth.  I worked with a delightful group of high school kids.  As part of that effort, I created and ran a youth drama group.  Lots of fun! Some of the dramas we presented in worship—others we performed in the evening.  For those evening events, we sold tickets—the money we raised funded our Habitat for Humanity youth mission trips. 

Some of the youth had surprising talent.  One family, I’ll call them the Smiths—my goodness!  They were a wonder!  James was the older of the three in our group. Even in high school I had a lot of respect for that boy and not just for his talents- but more about that later. 

James’ sister, Bizzy, had a lot of talent, too. We called her Bizzy, because when her little brother Charlie tried to say, Elizabeth, that’s how it came out.  Bizzy.  The name stuck. Charlie, too, was a fine dramatist. 

Our drama group put together a sketch, later presented in worship, based on the story about the rich man.  Bizzy played the rich person, obviously not the rich man. Right there you see how we took some liberties with the text.  Let us refer to as the rich, ethical person for the purpose of this discussion.  That’s what the rich person in our story is.   As he himself says, in scripture, he has followed the Jewish law since his youth.  He is trying to do the right thing.  He just has a lot of money.    So, again, Bizzy is the rich, ethical person.   

 

We put the story in a modern day setting—that’s what made it fun.  We decided that probably Jesus, played by another youth actor) would not have been strolling the streets of DC suburban McLean.  More likely he would have been teaching and preaching and giving hope to down-and outers.  So, our setting was Anacostia.  Anacostia is a mostly black, crime-wrought DC neighborhood.  

After we established the setting, the youth went wild with their play acting.  I was the director, but I pretty much sat back and watched.  In our drama, Bizzy, the rich, ethical person, wears a designer-look dress, hair up, high heels.  She is driving an imagined expensive car—a Ferrari. We may have even had the sign “Ferrari” on the chair she sat on as she pretend-drove.   She parks at an imagined curb, next to an imagined sidewalk where a youthful Jesus wearing jeans and a T-shirt is standing with his jean-clad disciples.   Bizzy steps out of her Ferrari.  After straightening and then swishing her dress, she says with a flourish, “Bijip.” (I had to practice that over and over to get the inflection right—bijip!)  Shall we all say that together?  “Bijip!”

At this point, director me, stops Bizzy (Time Out, or maybe CUT) and I say, “Bizzy, what was that?!”  She says, “I am locking my car.  You don’t expect me to leave it unlocked in THIS neighborhood!” Definitely she was into her role.

Sadly, I don’t have time to relay the rest of the drama for you. But I hope I have given you at least a flavor of what I was involved in for I don’t know—ten years, maybe. Again, lots of fun!  

As I said, I won’t share with you the rest of the drama, but I do want to use it as a stepping off place for our discussion today. I thought I would use our imaginations to put this story in OUR current day context.  Right away, I thought, “If we could choose anyone at all, who would WE, in 2018, get to play the rich, ethical person?” Someone in the news maybe, a CEO, a government official, an actor or actress. 

If you are of a cynical bent, maybe right now you’re thinking, “It’s a contradiction in terms—an oxymoron!—rich, ethical person.

That would be wrong.  There ARE rich, ethical people out there, actually right here in this country.  As one example, how about Bill Gates?  He and his wife are worth billons—But they are also generous. My goodness, they are using some of their money to fight malaria; and they hope to wipe polio off the planet in the next three years. He fits the bill as a rich, ethical person.     

So, humor me here.  Bill Gates lives in Washington State.  Let’s imagine he’s driving through the low income Washington State city of Cheney.  He is driving his ---so what does Bill Gates drive? Want to take a guess?  I went on-line to find out the answer.  He drives a Ford Focus! 

Far cry from a Ferrari!  But, let’s not give up yet. Let’s imagine Bill Gates sees Jesus on the sidewalk in Cheney, Washington.  He pulls over and parks his Ford Focus at the curb.  He steps out wearing…..What WOULD Bill Gates be wearing ?

Ok.  This isn’t good.   Have you ever seen Bill Gates wearing a designer ANYTHING!  Except maybe designer jeans?   Does the man even OWN a tie?

So sorry, our contemporary take on Bill Gates as the rich, ethical man is breaking down. I’m afraid we are going to have to scratch him, and find someone else.

So, how about Warren Buffet?  Rich, ethical person for sure.  In 2016, one year mind you, Warren Buffet gave away  $2.9 billion. 

Warren Buffet lives in Omaha, Nebraska.  Florence is a ghetto neighborhood in Nebraska.  So, in our imaginations, let’s transport Warren Buffet there.  Warren Buffet is driving through poverty stricken Florence in his—you know what Warren Buffett drives?  A Cadillac GTX. It’s not an over-the-top expensive car, but it’s pricier than a Ford Focus.  We have found our person--maybe. Warren Buffet sees Jesus on a sidewalk in Florence, Nebraska.  He pulls up to the curb in his Cadillac GTX.  He gets out wearing….

Ok.  Warren Buffet DOES wear suits and even ties, but speaking for myself here, I have never been impressed.  His suits are on the saggy, baggy side.  I did a little on-line research—you really CAN find anything online!  Warren Buffet gets his suits on the cheap directly from China.  And, sadly, for our purposes here today, I will mention that Warren Buffett and his wife live in the same modest home he bought back in the ‘50’s.

AGH. 

We’re not doing very well, are we?  Don’t these people know how rich they are? Is it possible that Warren Buffet’s and Bill Gates’ wealth has just never sunk in with them?

And, that’s it, don’t you think?  These men decided a long time ago—maybe way back in high school—a time when young people are usually trying to decide who they are, they decided way  back then, that they would be ethical first, whatever else they might decide to do in life. So, today, instead of being rich (comma) ethical people, they are ethical (comma) rich people.  You see the difference?    

I had a friend in seminary—Jack.  Jack is Japanese American.  He looks very Asian.  Jack complained that people assume he is smart.  Jack isn’t stupid, but he is, at least to his thinking, just average when it comes to intellectual abilities.  But in this mostly non-Asian country, Jack MUST be extremely intelligent. He’s got the skin color and the eye shape to prove it!

In seminary, Jack was just scraping by financially—he was working as a pizza delivery man evenings after classes.  One evening, he is delivering a pizza.  He actually has the pizza in his hands.  He rings the doorbell.  The woman who answers the door, looks him up and down, and she says, “Are you a doctor?”  Bottom line--Jack did not choose for his intelligence to be one of his primary identifying characteristics.  He has a strong faith.  That’s the reason he was in seminary, after all, and he has a sense of humor that just won’t quit.  So he is faithful (comma), funny and then somewhere down the line, maybe, smart, too.

So, I promised to tell you more about James, you know a member of the talented acting family at my previous church?  Besides being a talented actor, James DOES have some great intellectual abilities. He went to a special high school for gifted and talented youth—a magnet school in the McLean area.  James could act but another of his gifts was writing.  He won some major writing awards.  He was editor of the school paper.  As is the case with youth, we will assume HE was in process of determining who he would be--Would he be an actor(comma), writer?  A writer, comma, actor?  Or something else entirely? So many strengths to choose from!   

There was also a troubled young woman at James’ school for gifted and talented students. We’ll call her Sarah. Her family was active in our church.  Sarah herself, though, attended only very infrequently.  I heard through the teen gossip chain, that one day, Sarah was caught walking the school’s hallways --extremely intoxicated. According to my teen sources, when the school principal opened Sarah’s locker, he found a cache of empty liquor bottles. 

 

The writers on the high school paper decided Sarah’s tragic secret would make great headline news.  The principal got wind of what the newspaper staff was up to.  He demanded they not print anything.  The teens ignored him, claiming, “Freedom of the press!  Freedom of the press!”  What did James do?  When he couldn’t convince his fellow journalists NOT to run the story, he quit the newspaper. The story still ran.

Happily, Sarah, then 17 and already an alcoholic, got help. Her family went into counseling and came out the better for it.  Sarah stayed on at the school. A brave thing to do!  She started attending church and youth group. I keep track of Sarah via Facebook still. She is married with at least two children, maybe more.   

While I was looking up people on the internet this week—Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Sarah-- I decided to look up James, too.  Today he is a DC Appellate Attorney. Not bad. I suspect, though, knowing James, that way back 20 something years ago, his course was set.  He had already determined his identity long ago.   With him it’s ethics(comma) lawyering.   

And that I think is the lesson to be learned in our story of the rich, ethical man. His identity as a rich man comes first with him.  So difficult to change an identity once it’s set.  Not impossible. Nothing is impossible with God. But difficult.  It’s kind of like a camel trying to walk through the eye of a needle.  Amen