What’s the Catch? A Sermon About Costly Grace, Discipleship, and (of course) Threading Needles with Camels


Grace Lutheran Church
11 October 2015 + Pentecost 20B
Mark 10.17-31

What’s the catch? It’s the question we ask when things just seem too good to be true. After four years of college and almost two years of seminary, I know that the surest way to attract poor students to your event is to offer free food. I’ve certainly taken advantage of my share of those opportunities—but always wondering: So what do I have to sit through, or sign up for, or commit to? What’s the catch?

It’s a question that I imagine was also on the mind of the man we meet in our gospel text today. Surely he had caught wind of Jesus’s rapidly spreading ministry—the healings, the exorcisms, the miracles, the resuscitations. And we know he’s intentionally seeking Jesus out. When he sees Jesus with the crowds and the children, he goes out of his way, distracted from his journey. There’s a sense of urgency and sincerity to his inquiry: he runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a fair question, and he’s genuinely curious. What do I have to do to get in on this? Is it too good to be true? What’s the catch?

In response, Jesus is direct. Like a good Jew, he recites to him Torah, God’s law, and specifically the Ten Commandments. Do these things. That’s the catch. And like a good Jew, the man responds, “I have kept all these since my youth.” Check, check, and check! And then Jesus pauses and looks at him, lovingly, before continuing, as if to say, “You really don’t get it, do you? Let me try again.”

See, Jesus didn’t recite back all of the commandments, or even a random assortment. You might recall from the days of confirmation class that there are two “tables,” or subsets, of the Ten Commandments: the first table deals with our relationship to God, and the second deals with our relationship to other people. It’s this second set that Jesus highlights. You might also recall the famous passage a couple chapters later in Mark’s gospel where Jesus is asked which commandment is the first of all and he responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind, and with all your strength… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12.30-31). Jesus effectively summarizes the two tables of the commandments, which is to say that in today’s passage, he effectively tells the rich man, “Love your neighbor.”

Jesus doesn’t discount this man’s keeping of the commandments, but he does tell him he is missing something. What Jesus is getting at is the difference between what we might call following “the letter of the law” versus “the spirit of the law.” In other words, the point is not following the commandments for their own sake but for the sake of communal justice. It’s not enough, for instance, to refrain from outright stealing from our neighbor, but, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” Jesus makes looking out for our neighbor a prerequisite to discipleship, as if to say, “There’s your catch.” Love your neighbor. Take care of them. Then you’ll know what it means to follow me. But the man is shocked at this and goes away grieving.

image unashamedly stolen from Paul Eldred’s blog, whose excellent sermon on the same text you should also read

Then, following the pattern from last week’s reading, the conversation moves from the public sphere to the private circle of the disciples, where Jesus elaborates: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” But the disciples don’t get it either, so he says it again and even adds an intentionally absurd comparison, “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.” And still they don’t get it.

Echoing back to the rich man’s question, the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” What’s the catch? And pausing and looking at them in the same way, Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” What? Another catch?

Perhaps it’s understandable then when Peter, exasperated, declares, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” What more do you want, Jesus? And then Jesus finally lets in on what his movement is all about: “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” This message that Jesus is proclaiming is going to turn things upside-down and inside-out. It’s getting back to the heart of God’s law that is concerned about justice, and it insists on removing those things, like wealth and greed, that get in the way.

So how do we inherit eternal life? What’s the catch? As good Lutherans, we know that there is no catch. Grace alone, right? Well, yes and no. And before you run to Pr. Kevin and accuse the seminary intern of heresy, let me be perfectly clear: We are indeed saved by grace through faith for Christ’s sake apart from works. (Did I get that right?) It’s what our Lutheran faith is all about, and for good measure, lest we forget, it’s even posted on a sign on one of our bulletin boards here. But it’s also much more than that.

Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, famously wrote about the “cost of discipleship.” With a fierce commitment to peace and social justice, Bonhoeffer offered a prophetic critique of the church of his day which had been sold out and corrupted by the Nazi regime, often openly endorsing Hitler’s politics to preserve itself. It ignored state-sanctioned tyranny and the violence being done against the Jews and other minorities at the expense of the gospel they were supposed to be preaching.

For the church of Bonhoeffer’s day, “grace alone” had turned into an excuse to ignore social sin, resulting in a failure to resist injustice. In other words, “grace alone” had turned into “cheap grace,” as Bonhoeffer writes:

Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship. [1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945

Cheap grace is a misunderstanding, Bonhoeffer claims, of what Luther had in mind when he said we are saved by grace alone. Cheap grace ignores the fact that Luther’s discovery of grace thrust him from the cloister to the world. For Luther, being saved by grace was only half of the point, and its necessary corollary was rooted in the obligation of discipleship. Put plainly: Grace is indeed a welcome word of good news to the sinner, but grace doesn’t just let us sit back in idleness as before, as though nothing has changed. Because of grace and the inbreaking of God’s new reality, everything has changed. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, the poor are lifted up, the outcast are welcomed in, the first are last, the last are first, the humanly impossible is divinely possible.

Costly grace, far from a “one-and-done” occurrence, is a living reality. Costly grace calls us to follow Jesus, like the rich man and the disciples. Costly grace beckons a life of discipleship, which Bonhoeffer knew all too well. Costly grace drove him from the confines of his comfortable career in academia to the confines of a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer risked his own life for being bold enough to speak out against the gross injustice and corruption he saw going on, and it ultimately cost him his life. Cheap grace lets us acquiesce in the face of injustice; costly grace demands that we call it out.

The life of discipleship to which Jesus invites the rich man and to which he calls each of us is not about following rules for the sake of following rules but for the sake of our neighbor. Like Bonhoeffer knew, discipleship means questioning the status quo when it contradicts God’s will for justice. It means standing in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. It means removing all those obstacles that get in the way. It even means practicing civil disobedience—or is it divine obedience?—when our state’s budget crisis threatens our most vulnerable populations, as our own local Lutheran bishop and countless other people of faith have done in a series of demonstrations this past summer.

faith leaders, with a camel, at a “Moral Monday” rally this summer in protest of the Illinois state budget cuts (photo credit: Tom Gaulke)

So what’s the catch? How do we enter the kingdom of God? Again, let me be perfectly clear: we are saved by grace through faith because of what God in Christ has freely done for us. But because of Christ’s redeeming work, we are freed to love and serve our neighbor. It’s not that we’re earning grace, but rather that we’re living in response to it. The kingdom of God is all about justice, and it’s a work in progress to which each of us is called to participate.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship,” in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 308.


A Sermon About Rest for the Weary, with #KellyOnMyMind


Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
6 October 2015
Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30 (Pentecost 5A)

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

You know the words. And you could probably sing them better than me. But I’d be hard-pressed to think of a time when these words were sang as poignantly as when Georgia death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner sang them early last Wednesday morning, just moments before the pentobarbital took over her body and she breathed her last.

That night, in the hours leading up to her death, I was glued to my Twitter feed—waiting, watching, praying, and hoping against hope. When the Supreme Court rejected her last request for a stay of execution, I was sad, angry, and bitter.

And with #KellyOnMyMind, I read with fresh eyes this gospel text. And I couldn’t help but resonate with Jesus: “To what will I compare this generation?” Of course, the generation that Jesus was referring to had just rejected John the Baptist and was now actively rejecting him. They had rejected his message of the coming of the royal reign of God that was especially for tax collectors and sinners and outsiders. On Wednesday morning, that generation didn’t seem all that far removed from those who rejected Kelly, a death row inmate-turned-minister of the gospel, an outsider among outsiders.

In our text Jesus is frustrated, and I felt that frustration. I once heard the death penalty described as “evil cloaked in respectability and law.” We call it “justice,” but we’re fooling no one. It’s the taking of life for life, rooted in an unquenchable desire for retribution. It rejects any possibility for reconciliation and restoration.

Kelly (center) with theologian Jurgen Moltmann, at her 2011 graduation from the Candler School of Theology’s Certificate in Theological Studies program

Reconciliation. Restoration. Sound familiar? Words that could just as easily describe Jesus’s ministry. Jesus’s rejected ministry, that is.

No wonder Jesus was pissed off. The gap in this pericope includes some not-so-nice words against the villages that rejected him. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! And you, Capernaum, you will be brought down to Hades!”

They just don’t get it—these wise and intelligent ones. But notice who does: infants. Ones without religious status, ones who shouldn’t know but somehow do, ones that get trampled on, ones whom the wise and intelligent resent. Ones like Kelly Gissendaner.

But then there’s that beautiful paragraph at the end: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” What are we to make of that after everything we just heard?

A few years ago, I went through bout of depression. I had just graduated college with what had been plans to go to seminary, but I had also just come out. The denomination of which I was then a part doesn’t exactly support queer clergy, so those plans were shattered. I struggled with a loss of community and a lack of clarity about what I wanted to do with my life.

It was also around that time that an Episcopalian friend introduced me to compline. This simple prayer service for the close of the day involves reciting these last verses from Matthew’s gospel. For me, compline has become a practice of laying down the burdens of the day and a powerful reminder of rest. It doesn’t solve all my problems, but it reminds me of God’s love and God’s ability to hold all my stuff when I cannot.

We’ve all had our share of seemingly hopeless situations. Last Tuesday night, Kelly could’ve easily despaired or harbored resentment against her executioners, but in her final statement, she said, “Let my kids know I went out singing ‘Amazing Grace.’” Kelly sang “Amazing Grace” because she knew that the power of the state to take her life was no match for the power and the love of the God who had redeemed her life.

There’s plenty to despair about in the world around us, my friends. There’s plenty to despair about when the state of Georgia takes the life of a woman who embodied the very definition of rehabilitation. There’s plenty to despair about when a news article from last Tuesday bears the headline, “The U.S. has six executions scheduled over the next nine days.” There’s plenty to despair about when yet another mass shooting leaves nine innocent people and their killer dead at a community college in Oregon.

There’s plenty to despair about, and frankly I’m sick of it. But Jesus offers something different.

Come to me, all you that are weary of state-sanctioned killings.
Come to me, all you that are burdened with loss and uncertainty.
Come to me, all you that are weary of mass shootings.
Come to me, all you that are wretched, lost, and blind.

Come to me, and I will give you rest.
Come to me, and I will show you amazing grace.

Come to me, Jesus says to each of us, and I will give you rest. Jesus doesn’t necessarily promise to make everything better, but he does promise respite in the thick of it. And that promise is ultimately found in the hope of the resurrection. And we can rest easy knowing that all has been conquered for us. Thanks be to God.