A Heavy Gold Chain

January 27, 2019


People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”
He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”
They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Johan Christiaan Beker was notorious. In terms of seminary lore and legend he was right up there with the best. Full of swagger and acerbic wit. Beker was known to curse at students, taking the Lord’s name in vain and thus sending the evangelicals into apoplectic fits. You could often find him during the chapel hour smoking a cheap cigar. He was larger than life.
When I met him, he was in full crazy. Another professor had just taken out a restraining order against him because of his persistent critique and claims about his character. Beker hated pretension and he sought to bring down anyone who walked a bit too high. His very pretentious colleague was so harassed by him a judge was convinced to not let Beker within 100 feet.
Yet, if you got past the rough veneer, and the bombastic, the man beneath was exceptionally thoughtful and congenial.
I had a number of conversations with him through the years. He is the only professor with whom I was ever so inclined to debate a grade. He gave me a B+ because he didn’t agree with my argument. We went round and round for an hour. My point was simple: you can’t lower my grade because you don’t agree with me. If am wrong, fine. He changed the grade.
Part of every student’s time at Princeton is hearing the lore. I loved the story of how Einstein played the violin at Christmas; how the seminary was formed because the university was godless. Lots of stories. The one that has always stayed with me, though, is the legend of Dr. Beker before he became a wild man.
I knew from his biography that he lived through a Nazi prison camp and came to the United States after the war. I knew all that. Yet, what I didn’t know was the deep and profound struggle Beker experienced once he was settled into a very prestigious chair as a New Testament professor. I learned later on how he couldn’t endure the everyday. Like many who survive extreme tragedy, it was the “plenty that hurt him.” It was the mundane, the trivial, the academic of the academic environment that was tearing him apart.
This lack of peace wore at him and plagued him until he couldn’t take it any longer. His life was great, but it was awful. One day, he simply walked away. No notice. He just left, disappeared.
A search ensued. Everyone feared for his life. He would not be the first survivor of tragedy to take their life once safe. After a good while, the president of the seminary, Dr. McCord, found him. Johan Christiaan Beker, the renowned scholar of Paul and the New Testament, author of many books, a man given an endowed chair, was working and living as a short order cook in Trenton.
He found him in the backend of a greasy spoon, a diner. Legend has it, McCord stood a few feet away from Beker and watched him work the grill. Finally, he approached him and said only three words, “Christiaan, come home.”
And he did. Beker came home. Not only did he come home to the seminary, he also came home to life. The scars and wounds and deep heartache were not erased, but they gained some distance, some time. He came home to life.
There is a strange truth we must all face in some fashion, in some way. We are born to die, yet we may be born again to live. The life we begin, the life we receive, is not necessarily the life we choose. We can choose to find our way, to come home to life.
Isaac Watts the great hymn writer concluded his arrangement of the 23rd psalm with this strange truth. He wrote, The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days; O may your house be my abode, and all my work be praise. There I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.
Christiaan Beker survived the Nazis; he was a huge success, but he was far from settled; he was a stranger, a guest in his own life. He needed to find rest, the house, peace of God, where he could live as a child at home, come home as a child of God.
The first lesson from Mark where Jesus blesses the children is usually read as a romantic celebration of innocence, of naïve splendor, childlike wonder. And it can be read as this. Certainly. Yet, what the Gospel writer has done is place the blessing of the children, the claim of Jesus that we must receive the Kingdom as a child, he places this teaching just before the sorrow of the rich man. It could be coincidence, but I think not.
The sorrow of the rich man is sometimes hard to swallow. I like what David Lettermen says, “there is no whining on the yacht.” No whining on the yacht is right. Poor rich fella. Doesn’t sound quite right does it?
Yet, if you live without peace and live in fear, if you cannot rest, if you struggle to find a sense of abiding joy, if you wear chains, even if the chains are gold, you are not free. You are a stranger in your own life. Christiaan Beker had it all, but he wanted nothing that he had; he was given peace, but he could not live his life in peace.
And thus begins salvation.
Bob Dylan wrote, “when I was deep in poverty, you taught me how to give.” Jesus told the rich man he lacked one thing: he didn’t know how to give. Knowing how to give it turns out is very, very important for salvation. Learning how to give once wealthy, very difficult.
Now before I tell you another story I want you to notice a few things about this passage. In Mark, this is the only time it says that Jesus loved someone. At other times it says Jesus had compassion. He is impressed by the woman at Bethany. In the gospel of John it says that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. But in Mark, this is it. So, unique.
Also, lots of people ask if they can follow Jesus. In Mark, Jesus heals people and they want to stay with him. To all of them Jesus says, no. And the times where Mark does record Jesus bidding someone to follow him, they did so “immediately.” So a rare offer, follow me, and a unique response, he went away grieving.
All of this is to say, not just another story. The story of the rich man and the call to come as a child are key to the gospels and what it means to find the salvation of eternal life, live unto life, not death.
About twenty years ago, we were really struggling. We had four kids, one income, we were mortgage poor, had student loans, on and on and on. Now in the bigger scheme of things, we had great health, we lived in a nice house, I had a wonderful job, a loving wife, our kids were all shiny and far above average. The glass was definitely half full or better except one time each year.
Each year during the fall I had to struggle with feelings of shame, fear, inauthenticity. Each year when I would call the congregation to be faithful givers, to increase their gift to the church, to make a pledge, I made this call knowing how far I was from feeling right. We gave, but the gift was done in guilt or measured by “if we can.” It was haphazard and it all felt wrong.
We struggled with this in our first call. Yet, there was so much to learn, so much to discover, giving wasn’t top of the list. 1998 it made the top of the list. I just felt wrong, dishonest and dishonesty is the worst for me. So we talked and we prayed and we talked so more. In the end we came to a decision, we would work toward a tithe. No review of our debts, no consideration for the year ahead. We decided to make this our commitment.
So at the absolute worst moment financially, we decided to begin the path toward a tithe. A tithe is when you give ten percent of your income each year; ten percent before taxes; ten percent before the bills are paid. I told the bookkeeper, you take out ten percent before you cut the check. Talk about fear. This was nuts. But yet, it somehow felt right.
And it felt more and more right each year. It took us four years to reach a tithe. It was hard and tight and challenging. But the power and energy and strength that came from being honest, being faithful, being true, that was far greater than the fear. Each year for the last twenty we have felt more and more free.
Now I tell you that story for the two epiphanies that came with the freedom. The first epiphany gained in tithing is that giving is not about money or possessions. Giving is about fear or freedom. Before we made the leap, giving was about fear, it was about not knowing what will happen, being afraid of the future, of commitment, of failure. Working toward a tithe showed us giving is about freedom from fear. The more we gave the less fear we had.
In this freedom I could see the other epiphany. Overcoming fear was the first step. Fear of money, fear of failure, once that was laid aside, then we could consider other things. We could consider greed, and control, and possessiveness, and consumption, and entitlement: a whole long list of challenges. The next challenges were hard too, but they were a lot more exciting. Fear is rather dull in the end.
I have preached a lot of stewardship sermons. Happy to do it. Sometimes pastors will shy away from this topic. “I don’t like to talk about money” is something I have heard more often than not. I am happy to preach about stewardship because I don’t see it as money. I see it as finding freedom, the freedom from fear. Learning how to give is one of three paths to salvation. Learning how to give money is just a step. Later you can master learning how to give forgiveness, learning how to give love, learning how to give peace. But you have to master the easy stuff before you tackle the greater ones.
The rich man went away in grief. The disciples were quite upset about this. The asked, “Who can be saved?” Just as they didn’t understand about the children and kept them away, they are not quite getting this one as well. To come as a child is a path where you are born anew. It is the path where we leave aside our confidence in anger, where we cast aside our possessiveness; coming as a child is where we discover the strength of humility and lay down our pride.
What Jesus was saying to the rich man is that he could tell he had overcome pride and anger, all he lacked was to find freedom from fear, to live free from the heavy chains of gold. But this is not easy. You almost need to reach the brokenness of Christiaan Beker, where you walk away, in order to be found.
I don’t know where you are in this path. No stones to cast if you are struggling. Yet, I will not offer you false hope. Learning how to give is a strange truth we must all face: We are born to die, yet we may be born again to live. The life we begin, the life we receive, is not necessarily the life we choose. We can choose to find our way, to come home to life.
Following Jesus we find the Kingdom of God where there is a settled rest, while others go and come; following Jesus is where we are no more a stranger, or a guest, in our own life: we become once again like a child at home. We find the freedom of learning how to give our life away. Amen.

Bible References

  • Mark 10:13 - 14
  • Mark 10:17 - 31