A couple weeks back I went to see the new remake of the 1980 movie, “Fame.” The opening scene of the film has the camera pulling back from tight focus on a tarnished, light-bulb encrusted version of the iconic cursive logo, with Debbie Allen’s voice repeating the now-famous and half-forgotten line that used to open the television show, “you got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs, and right here is where you start paying. In sweat.”
The big dream, the outcome, of fame is spelled out even more clearly in the lyrics to the title song:
Fame! I’m gonna live forever / I’m gonna learn how to fly – high
I feel it coming together, people will see me and cry – Fame!
I’m gonna make it to heaven, light up the sky like a flame – Fame!
I’m gonna live forever. Baby, remember my name…
“Fame” went from being a movie to a television show to a Broadway musical to a reality show talent competition back to being a movie. One reviewer of the new remake noted that in the almost thirty years since the original movie, our cultural obsession with celebrity has mushroomed into something almost unrecognizable. The reviewer quotes the endearing female lead on the new television series “Glee,” Quinn Fabray, who says, “nowadays being anonymous is worse than being poor. Fame is the most important thing in our culture now.”
When I was a high school freshman we did the stage adaption of “Fame” as the spring musical. It was the same year that “Dirty Dancing” was in the theaters, and we stole the choreography from the final dance number in Dirty Dancing for the lunchroom jam dance scene. I’ll admit, there was something about mimicking two generation-defining movies at once that did make us feel immortal. We were clothing ourselves in the sights and sounds of the imperishable world of movie magic. By the time we came out for the final graduation number, “The Body Electric,” and lifted our clasped hands to the audience singing, “and in time we will all be stars,” I think we actually believed it.
It’s that kind of fervor, that willingness to put in sweat equity that drives the man who comes to Jesus in this morning’s gospel text. “Good teacher,” he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Remember my name…)
“You lack one thing,” Jesus tells him.
Well now, that’s funny. The man didn’t ask Jesus what he lacked, he asked Jesus for something to do. In fact, this man didn’t lack for much. He had many possessions. But Jesus says, “Go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
After hearing a dozen or so sermons on this text the answers to all the tough questions come too easily. What did the young man lack? Jesus didn’t give the man anything, instead he asks the man to give everything away. It’s a story about priorities and discipleship, right? It’s a story about setting aside those cares and passions and preoccupations that prevent you from being a true follower of Jesus—right?
I’m sure it is that kind of story. And that’s why it scares me.
We all know what kind of people God calls us to be, we just aren’t very good at being that kind of person. Whether your stumbling block is money or possessions or work or recognition or family or children or independence or control, who here has been able to do what Jesus says must be done?
Peter thought he was doing an okay job. Hearing Jesus’ advice to the rich young man to give it all up and follow him, Peter thinks he has it made. So Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” And that’s true, as we read in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, “as Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon (whom he later named Peter) and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” So it’s easy to see, given Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man, why Peter is eager to pat himself on the back. Yes, the price was high, but he and his brother had done the right thing—and so the eternal reward was theirs.
But in reply, Jesus gives one of his tricky Jesus answers that makes you wonder if he heard what you were really saying, like when you ask for something to do and instead he gives you someone to be. Responding to Peter’s excitement—maybe even to a bit of self-righteousness—Jesus replies, “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.”
What’s this? Peter thinks that unlike the young man, he had done the good deed, been the good disciple. Jesus affirms him, saying that all that Peter has given up will be returned, with one addition: persecutions. What kind of reward is that?
Well it may have been news to Peter, but it shouldn’t have been. Jesus has twice already predicted his death to the disciples, and the final prediction comes immediately after this passage. And it wouldn’t have been a surprise at all to the Christians living around 70 AD when this gospel was composed, who may have known people who were martyred a few years before under the emperor Nero. To them Jesus’ prediction of the reversal of fortunes must have been good news indeed, that the “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” If anyone deserved the eternal
reward, it was those Christians, who sacrificed everything to witness to their love of God.
But you get the feeling that there’s more, don’t you? There are still too many loose ends out there. As Jesus continues to make his way to Jerusalem, and to the cross, his disciples and the rich young man alike are essentially asking the same question, “What do we have to do to be good enough?” Good enough for eternal life, good enough for exaltation at Jesus’ side, good enough to be justified. To finally feel like you’d done something right. Good enough to quell the persistent suspicion that you aren’t good enough.
Jesus’ first words to the rich young man come not surprisingly in the form of a question, “Why do you call me good?” And then a hidden answer, “No one is good but God alone.” So what’s Jesus saying, that he’s not good—or that he is God? That’s Mark’s favorite little game to play, dropping the messianic secret just to see if anyone picks up on it. Peter has figured it out at this point, but he still doesn’t seem to know what it means. In answer to our question, “What do we have to do to be good enough?” Jesus offers a deceptively simple response:
“No one is good but God alone.”
Great. Now we’re all back at square one. You can do like the rich young man did and turn Jesus down, or you can do like Peter and Andrew and all the rest did and you can follow Jesus. Either way, you’re not good, and option number two comes with persecutions to boot. Apparently no one is good but God alone! Do you feel the frustration—does it seem unduly harsh, or critical, or confusing?
It must have seemed so to the disciples. As the man walked away grieving, Jesus turned to his followers, whose faces must have registered a mixture of confusion and astonishment, and said, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” But his friends remain perplexed. No questions. No rebuttals. Just silence. So Jesus rephrases it for them, “Children,” he says—and that’s important—“how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” Not just for those who have wealth this time, but seemingly for everyone. It’s going to be hard—like threading a needle with a camel. Long odds. But why is Jesus calling his friends and disciples “children?” Isn’t that paternalistic at best, and condescending at worst?
Well, what has Jesus said to his disciples about children so far? If we’d followed the lectionary last week, instead of departing from the assigned readings for our commemoration of St. Francis and blessing of the animals, we would have heard the first half of this chapter from Mark. There Jesus tried to tell his followers that he was headed for the cross and they got scared, changed the subject, and started arguing about whom was the greatest among them. So Jesus places a child in their midst, a virtual no one, holding no power and carrying no rank, and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant to all.”
And then, right before the man approaches Jesus with this morning’s question, he’d just gotten done scolding the disciples for trying to keep the children away. “Let the children come to me,” he says, “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 by that does Jesus mean that we must be sweet like children, or innocent like children? No. Those are our ideas of childhood. Ideas formed in an era of child labor laws and low infant mortality rates, at least in the world’s richer nations. Children in Jesus’ day were non-entities. They were powerless. They could not do anything.
And now Jesus is calling his disciples, grown women and men, who want to know what they can do to be good, to be saved, children. Do they hear what he is saying? Do we, can we, hear what Jesus is saying? No one is good but God alone. We are powerless—like children. There is nothing we can do. And so, despairing that all hope is lost, that the world has been turned completely upside down, we ask, “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.”
You can’t do it. Lay that burden down. There is nothing you can do to quell that suspicion, to ease that uncertainty, to justify yourself, to prove yourself, to save yourself. Nothing. “For mortals,” Jesus says, “it is impossible. But not for God; for God all things are possible.” And then God does it. Jesus stops predicting the crucifixion, and he walks on to the cross. He looks at the rich young man and he loves him. “Children,” he says, “for God all things are possible.” And then we are reconciled to God, and to each other.
We get stuck in this text when we try to limit just how completely God is reordering the world. When we hear that “the many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,” we want to say that the poor will be uplifted, the hungry will be fed, the oppressed will be liberated and the oppressor will be laid low. But that doesn’t go far enough. Because don’t we suspect that we are somehow responsible for some of that poverty, hunger and oppression?
Who is righteous? Who is good? Won’t we all be laid low? No! Because what Jesus has been trying to tell us is that the redistribution of power is not relative, but absolute. In Christ’s servanthood we must recognize that God’s power to save us has broken through every boundary and has been extended not just to the Peters and Andrews, but to the rich young men as well—and to us! And in response to that gift, already freely given, what else can we do but offer all of our lives back to the God who has saved us, in gratitude and in love.
I spent the summer of 2000 doing street-based outreach with homeless young people in the metro-Atlanta area. Other students and I would approach kids on the street and ask them if they or anyone they knew might be able to benefit from any of the services we provided, which ranged from friendly conversation, to transport to a local shelter, to help navigating confusing public assistance programs. My first day on the street in early June I met a man who introduced himself to me as “Dread.” He looked to be in his thirties or forties, was missing about half his teeth, and smelled of liquor.
We must have looked out of place because he asked what we were doing in the neighborhood. I explained our program to Dread and then he asked me why I was interested in homeless youth. I said that I’d been working with homeless and runaway kids for a few years, and that it’s just where my heart was. Dread’s response was, “Just don’t think th
at anything you do out here will save your soul. If that’s the reason you’re here—you may as well go home.”
Dread got it. There’s nothing you can do to save your soul. Besides, it’s already been done. So let go of those fears and doubts, and be opened to the ways that God is calling you into servanthood, knowing that when you take up that calling you will find yourself surrounded by brothers and sisters, mothers and and children. The call to servanthood is a call to embrace all of humanity as your family, not as a means to eternal life, but in recognition of the one, common, eternal life that you share with all of creation.
Do you remember God’s promise to Abraham all the way back at the beginning of the holy scriptures? All the way back in Genesis, chapter 15, God lifts Abraham’s eyes to the night sky filled with stars and says, “look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them” and then he said to Father Abraham, “so shall your descendents be.” That story lived in the imagination of the nation of Israel for a thousand years before one of its sons, Jesus, opened it up to mean that we are all children of Abraham, we are all children of God – and in the age to come, and in time, we will all be stars.