All Things Are Possible...On the Narrow Path

I recently attended a conference where the theme was "Mission Possible." The corresponding scripture reference was Jesus's statement in Matthew 19:26: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." This verse is found in the context of Jesus's conversation with a man known as a "rich young ruler," found in 3 of the 4 gospels with slight variations (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30). In Mark and Luke, he says to Jesus, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (In Matthew, he asks, "Teacher, what good thing must I do..."). Jesus, in some comments that don't jive well with traditional Christian doctrine, first distances himself from God and "goodness" saying that "no one is good, except God alone," and then answers the man's question about attaining eternal life by telling him to "obey the commandments." The commandments that Jesus specifically mentions are five of the Ten Commandments (plus "love your neighbor" in Matthew), which deal with person-to-person relations. The rich man affirms that he has never broken any of these commandments, and in Matthew asks, "What do I still lack?" Jesus then tells him to go and sell everything he has and give it to the poor, and then to come and follow him. Saying nothing, the man walks away "sad." Jesus then says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." A puzzled group of disciples ask, "Who then can be saved?" It is at this point that Jesus makes the statement: "With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible."

(By the way, you may have heard the idea that there was a small "gate" or hole in the wall in Jerusalem that was known as "the eye of the needle." Interesting, but probably not true.)

During one worship session at the conference, an area pastor and friend of mine gave an excellent narrative sermon that drew a connection between the challenge Jesus posed to the rich young ruler and the challenge posed to this organization of Baptists. In the sermon, he retold the gospel story from the imagined perspective of the rich young ruler, and paralleled it with a fictional story of "Wilbur," a modern day Baptist in our region. Both men asked, "Why don't the old ways work?" You see, staff in the region has been dramatically decreased, and we continue to face budget shortfalls. In the sermon, both the rich young ruler and "Wilbur" are faced with the challenge to do ministry in a totally different way, to not only leave old ways behind but discover a new adventure. Just as the rich man was challenged to take on a whole new way of being a disciple, the fictional Wilbur was challenged to rethink ministry at this level; how we give, who's involved, and most importantly, how to do it without the money we used to have.

A business meeting followed. The budget was presented and discussion ensued about how to increase giving...in the same way, with the same structure, with the same people. I don't want to talk disparagingly about my brothers and sisters in the region, but I couldn't help but wonder if the sermon had fallen on deaf ears. There we were - talking about how to raise money while using a Bible verse found within a story of a call to part with material wealth. The irony is worth exploring.

Perhaps it's not so much the call to actually "be poor" (actual poverty has destructive consequences), but to at least get the dollar signs (and head counts) out of our eyes so that we can clearly see what we're doing, and why. When we have this vision and know what the essence of our call is, we may not panic as much when things are tight. Turning our attention away from the numbers does at least two important things:

One, it enhances creativity. When you don't have funding to rely on, you have to get creative, and in the process of doing so, you might accidentally end up using people's God-given gifts and talents rather than just their portfolio. I've seen this kind of thing happen with an initiative called Advent Conspiracy that a group in my church focuses on every Christmas. This initiative partially calls people to make and give gifts in more relational ways, which not only takes care of money issues but people end up doing things that last and actually build relationships (like making gifts together, etc.). A colleague of mine once said in a business meeting that the proposed budget, which had suffered drastic cuts, was a true "faith budget." We usually think a leap of faith is when you budget high and have "faith" that people will give. But my wise colleague pointed out that it is when we decrease our dependency on resources and rely on people to engage with their gifts and talents that we truly make a leap of faith.

Secondly, breaking our dependency on money enhances personal involvement. It's a long process that's easier said than done, but once people can't throw money at a problem anymore, you have a chance to actually engage them personally and foster a faith-stimulating encounter with people in need who had only before met their wallet. Example: when well-off people from the states go on a mission trip to an impoverished country, their life and priorities are changed forever. When we stay home and give money, the best thing that happens is we feel vindicated and put it out of our minds with the self-assurance, "At least I did something." Couldn't the same transformation happen right here at home when we--pardon the baseball analogy--step out of the press box and onto the field?

I'm convinced that this is the kind of thing Jesus was thinking of when he spoke of "the narrow path" (Matthew 7:13-14, or see especially the context in Luke 13:22-30). Jesus, in a word, called people to do things the hard way. He approached potential followers and converts in the exact opposite way that marketing departments and church evangelism committees do. When people came to Jesus willingly and ready to follow, he warned them of how hard it might be and told them to count the cost. Doing ministry through personal engagement and relationship building is harder. Being challenged and facing hardship, which is really the only way we grow as disciples, is harder. But it's better. Too many people, when they hear the word "missions," immediately think of giving money to missionaries or helping organizations. What would it look like to personally engage in the ministries carried out by the organizations we simply give money to, whether it's here at home or abroad? Great things are possible...on the narrow path.

Financial giving to religious organizations is tanking. Will we continue to swim upstream in our desperate search for dollars, or will we embrace a new calling? Is this "decrease" exactly what the Church needs in order to let Christ "increase?" (John 3:30). Is this part of a "cleansing" of today's churches, many of whom would find that they don't have a sense of mission beyond getting butts in their seats? Could it be that constantly striving for growth is the worst way to achieve it? Do we have the faith to see success even when we're not raising a dime? If and when Jesus calls us to be poor, will we take that leap, or will we, like the rich young ruler, walk away?

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