Inheritance and Discipleship

What do you want to inherit?

Proper 2, Year B

October 10, 2021

Yesterday our diocesan convention, held on zoom, passed a resolution submitted by a group of Grace members and diocesan clergy that committed the diocese to examine our history as it relates to the indigenous people of Wisconsin and to build relationships with our Native American neighbors. It came at an appropriate time. Next year, 2022, sees the concurrence of two important anniversaries for Wisconsin Episcopalians. First, next year is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Episcopalians to what is now the State of Wisconsin. They were members of the Oneida Nation, forced to leave their homes in upstate New York. The second anniversary is the 175th anniversary of the Diocese of Milwaukee, which we will observe at a special convention a year from now. 

Tomorrow is also the observance of Columbus Day, or increasingly “Indigenous People’s Day” an opportunity for us as Americans to consider the complicated and violent history that saw the destruction of native cultures, the seizure of land, and genocide. I’ve been reading David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Treuer, an Ojibwe who grew up on the Leech Lake reservation in Minnesota, tells the stories of Native Americans over the last century; the Federal government’s efforts to force assimilation, to “kill the Indian and save the man” to dissolve reservations and tribal autonomy, and slowly, haltingly, to support Native efforts to build community and heal trauma. Treuer also tells stories of resistance and resilience. 

Like the history of slavery and the persistence of racism, the history of Native Americans in the US is a story that makes us uncomfortable. The hard truths of that history have long been ignored and suppressed, replaced by a story of whites settling and taming a land that was empty, bringing prosperity, civilization, and democracy to the wilderness. Christianity, Christian churches played an important role in that project operating missions and boarding schools that suppressed native cultures, native languages, and native religions.

As we move forward with our efforts, both at Grace and on the diocesan level, we will engage in conversations internally and with Native Americans to deepen our understanding both of the history and of the current challenges facing indigenous peoples in Wisconsin. We hope to provide an update at our Annual Meeting next month.

This legacy, this history, is uncomfortable. It raises questions about our responsibilities given the fact that events like the removal of the HoChunk, the history of the boarding schools, took place decades or over a century ago. It challenges our self-understanding, as individuals, as Christians, as Americans. Too often, faced with these harsh truths, we want to ignore, turn away. And so the sorts of conflicts we see at school boards, here in our State Assembly, over what is derided as “Critical Race Theory” seek literally to white-wash American history and culture. 

Even as our national, cultural, and family identities may tug at as, may tempt us to avert our eyes and pass over our history, Jesus calls us into a different identity and into new community. I think we see something of that same struggle of identity, the conflict between legacy and discipleship in today’s gospel reading.

It’s a familiar story, though as is typical of gospel stories, we’re never satisfied with the way one gospel writer tells it and introduce details from other versions to complete it. So, in Mark’s telling, a young man comes to Jesus with the question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Think about that question for a moment. First, the way he addresses Jesus: “Good Teacher,” he begins. Rather like a student might approach a teacher, but not really, right?” It’s a bit of flattery maybe, like the student who approaches a prof for an extension, or a letter of recommendation. And I’ll point out, instead of responding in kind, Jesus rejects the flattery, no one is good but God. 

But then comes the real question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We might assume it’s a rather obvious question, similar to others we see in the New Testament, “What must I do to be saved?” for example. But in fact, this is the only time the term “eternal life” appears in the Gospel of Mark. 

And furthermore, that verb: “inherit.” In the ancient world, if not today, inheritance almost always was a family thing—parents’ passing their possessions on to their children after death. Inheritance implies family; it implies privilege. Inheritance, privilege. Think again of the wealth accumulated and passed on in the US thanks to slavery, thanks to the dispossession of Native Americans; think of the generational trauma inherited by African Americans, by indigenous peoples.

And think of Jesus, calling his disciples. Those first disciples, by the Sea of Galilee, “Come, follow me.” When Jesus talks about discipleship and following him in the gospel of Mark, he stresses that it means giving up everything, including family ties. Here, Peter says, “we have left everything to follow you.” Jesus responds with a saying about the reward for giving up everything, including family, to follow him. 

Seen in this light, the man’s question is phrased incorrectly. What Jesus is proclaiming is a new community based not on ties of family or economic status. It may be that when Jesus tells the young man to distribute his possessions among the poor, he is instructing him to break away from his old relationships of privilege and family and enter into this new community that Jesus is calling together. It’s interesting that Jesus uses the same words, “Follow me,” to the young man that he used when calling the disciples. But in this instance, he has added another stipulation, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor.” It’s as if he knows, to pick up on the idea that this story is in the form of a healing story, that for the young man to follow him, to be whole spiritually, he needs to abandon his wealth.

But what does this all have to do with us? It’s a story that may fill us with guilt because we think about our relative wealth in the face of the world’s and this city’s poor. It may fill us with guilt as we think about our privilege over against the struggles of people of color in the US, of African Americans and Indigenous peoples. It may fill us with guilt because of our comfort and enjoyment of life in the face of the world’s need. 

At the same time, in light of all those stories about the vast accumulation of wealth by the few, how that wealth increased exponentially during the pandemic, we may think that whatever our privilege and relative wealth, it is nothing compared to the wealth of those other people, and that Jesus’ words are not directed at us but at them.We may think that this is one of those places where what Jesus has to say has no relevance for our lives. 

But I don’t think that’s the case. All of us struggle with money. Some of us struggle with the lack of money, with worries about the future, about making it till the end of the pay period. Some of us have different struggles, as we wonder whether how our financial lives connect with our spiritual lives. Did you know that Jesus had more to say about money and wealth than about any other topic?

It’s not something we like to talk about at church, especially in this time of the year as we are beginning our annual stewardship campaign. But we need to talk about it and think about it, as a congregation and as individual Christians. Jesus calls us to follow him. He wants our whole allegiance, body and soul. Following him totally means living all of our existence in light of him and that call. It means seeing our wealth, our financial choices, in light of that call. What have we inherited, what do we want to inherit?

As we struggle with these questions; as we struggle with Jesus’ call to follow him, he sees us in our struggles, as we try to make wise and faithful decisions. He sees us, and while we may think his gaze is one of judgment and condemnation, may we be certain that even as he loved the man who turned away; he loves us even when we stumble or falter. Thanks be to God.

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