October 11, 2015

20th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley Schmeling

If you leave the Twin Cities at 5:15 a.m., you can be in Guatemala by lunchtime. As we landed over the mountainous terrain, I thought, “This isn’t that far away.” For some reason, that surprised me. Maybe this is how the world actually is: we are closer, more connected, and more accessible to one another than we imagine.

We drove three hours from the airport to San Lucas Tolimán, a rural village, high in the mountains, on the edge of a beautiful, volcanic lake. It is the best coffee-growing country in the world. Many of you knew Father Greg, who was sent by the New Ulm diocese to work in the mission there in 1958. Patricia and Claire, who had been many times before were amazed to see how much has developed in that little town, all out of the simple Roman Catholic social ethic of dignity, the common good, solidarity, and subsidiarity.

One of the current projects is to create a sustainable economy by supporting families as they grow coffee. The mission bought two plantations, gave the land to families, and decided to pay more than market rate for a pound of coffee. The project models a different kind of economy than the one that exists in much of the world. The primary principle isn’t the largest profit possible for shareholders but sustainability and dignity for families. Imagine paying more than the market rate so that people can live a life that is healthy, sustainable, and secure. It’s sort of the anti-big-box-store principle that lures its customers with the lowest prices possible, regardless of what that might mean for employees or, much less, the people down the supply chain.

When Jesus tells the rich man that he lacks one thing—“sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor”–he is pointing all of us to a different economic model than the one where riches signify blessing, where being at the top is a sign of exceptional status. When the man lists the Ten Commandments as if they are a religious checklist, Jesus suggests that accumulating capital, whether moral or material is not how the reign of God works. Apparently, the religious life can’t be separated from an economic life. How we live in the world; how we grapple with wealth and poverty; how we practice our household economics; how much money we give away or hold on for ourselves matters deeply to God.

I wish Mark would have told us what the man was thinking. Was he afraid to be considered poor in world that judges people for being so? Did his new chariot define him? Did he think, “He must not mean that literally. If I gave away my stuff, someone else would have to take care of me, and I hate big government.” Maybe he liked talking a good progressive line without having to see how being wealthy has implications for poor people. Whatever went through his mind, Jesus invitation to live differently made him despair. He went away sad.

It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of the needle. There’s no way to enter this text without finding ourselves in the story as the rich man. This invitation to take seriously the connection between our faith and our wealth is for us.

The coffee project in San Lucas may not change the whole global economy, but it’s an attempt or practice the reign of God in real time and in a real place, with real people, both rich and poor together as if we really were one family. When we flew back to the United States, every one of us agreed that we cannot be faithful Christians or even compassionate global citizens unless we continue this relationship there. The distance cannot be far between the farmer in Guatemala and the coffee drinker in St. Paul.

Maybe we need to know people by name in another part of the world as we push our carts through the coffee aisle, or invest our savings, or consider what we really need. Would Jesus say to us, “The one thing you lack is a companion, whose poverty worries you, whose face can hold you accountable, who nudges you when you’re tempted to think that you’re not extravagantly rich.”

Did you notice that Jesus’ gives him this most difficult task because he loved him? Does Jesus know that to engage the task, to do what seems impossible, is precisely want gives us eternal life? Think for a moment of eternal life as a moment when God’s future and our complicated lives touch, not as the reward for following the rules or for being some superficially nice, good, religious person. If we are not willing to risk letting go, or giving up, or giving away, we are not likely to have these moments of grace. This is the mystery of the last being first, and the first being last. It’s the key to God’s economy. It’s the key to inheriting eternal life.

Ironically, the place that turned out to be filled with eternal life in Guatemala City was in a steep ravine in a kind of no-person’s land, at the bottom of a treacherous stairway, so narrow it might have been called “The Eye of the Needle.” We were led to a tiny church called La Resurectión, resurrection at the bottom of the stairs. As we went from home to home to pray for healing or for a job or for a baby that wasn’t doing well, there was a power of faith and hope that doesn’t seem quite so palpable in our materially blessed lives. They wanted us to read scripture and pray. When is the last time, we called a friend and said, “Can you come over to pray with me?” I know they have greater trust that “with God all things are possible” than I do. Most astoundingly, they saw us as blessings, not because we had many possessions, but because we came down those steps to see them.

I still don’t know where eternal life began and the global economy slipped away. I’m not naïve enough to think that I am any better or more faithful because of our visit or that the lives of those families is fundamentally changed, but for just a few precious moments, there wasn’t a first or last, one rich in wealth and another in faith. For just those moments, we were companions together and we passed through the eye of the needle.