Pentecost 20 B: Life or Death on the Oregon Trail

The readings for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament      Amos 5:6–7, 10–15

Psalm                    Psalm 90:12–17

New Testament     Hebrews 4:12–16

Gospel                   Mark 10:17–31

If you were to travel the Oregon Trail, as thousands of desperate immigrants did in its heyday of the 1840s through the 1860s, you would have found the 2,000 mile plus trail littered with discarded items. The anxious travelers thought these pieces of equipment, clothing and furniture   precious as they began the arduous trek, but they were jettisoned to lighten the wagons for the survival of their exhausted oxen and mules, and so for themselves.

Each item signified a life or death decision.

The nature of our apocalyptic Christian faith is to say some decisions mean everything. Not everything is “both and.” Very many are “either or.”  There is a reckoning coming. And that is the message that the church must proclaim to this world on the brink.

Amos knows he is crazy. He knows he is not the “prudent” man of 5:13, who should keep silent and keep his head down in such an evil time. But he can’t hold it in. He shouts out about the reckoning to come and the radical, life and death decisions that people must make on the wilderness  road leading into their future: “Seek the Lord and live,” he exclaims. “Hate evil and love good.”

“Quit grasping for power and wealth when it is the survival of your very soul and the soul of your people at stake. Quit taking bribes and pushing aside the needy when it is a God of righteousness and justice and mercy who holds your very life in her hands.” There will be no tomorrow for any of us if we don’t think of all of us.

Amos knows there is a reckoning waiting us all along the Oregon Trail we are all walking.

Hebrews mixes metaphors to get the point across. The author picks up a very ancient and widespread picture of a skilled butcher who is deft at cutting away joints from marrow on a carcass to highlight the value of sharp spiritual and moral discernment. But, as this metaphor is used in other places, such as in the Tao Te Ching,  to inspire the advancement of individual discipline in finding balance and meaning in life, the author of Hebrews insists the butcher’s incisive skill is God’s alone. God’s Word is the knife the cuts efficiently and cleanly. So, what hope do we mere mortals have when our judgment is dull?  Hebrews answers that our hope is in our high priest, Jesus Christ. The typical high priests of the latter second temple period of the New Testament, were politically appointed, corrupt, and self-concerned. But Christ, our high priest, is a true intermediary between fallible humans and infallible God. Jesus understands we humans can’t always make the right life and death decisions. So he calls us to daily repent, turn to God and be forgiven. We can walk forward with boldness knowing we are approaching the divine throne of grace, not condemnation.

Hebrews knows each step we take demands sharp decisions, but even with our dull wits we can go forward along our Oregon Trail of life.

Jesus is on his journey in Mark 10, and along the way a young man comes and wants navigation advice for making it to the end of the trail—for inheriting eternal life. Jesus reminds the young man that God has long ago provided a very good map and compass in the Torah that outlines all the necessary basics of social justice: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’  The young man declares his life-long dedication to these principles, and Jesus his dedication and love for the man.

But then Jesus exercises his divine gift of exacting discernment. He senses the man on his journey, is carrying with him so much of a burden of material possessions that it betrays his one deadly lack: he doesn’t have eyes for the prize. The only way forward for this rich young man is to cast away the unnecessary—to lighten the load lest he and his loved ones with him fall exhausted along the trail. The loaded camel will never make it through the eye of the needle.

Jesus, like Amos and Hebrews knows not everything is “both and.” There are many that are, finally “either or.” We must choose life over death, good over evil, essentials over excess baggage.  And Jesus, like Hebrews, knows it is beyond human capability to survive the journey without help from beyond. We fail the test often and need repair and redemption.

So, it is the apocalyptic Christian faith that Jesus ends with. He says there is a difference between this world’s aims and the aims of God. And we have to have our aims set on the right destination.  Then for the sake of survival, we can lighten our loads by giving up some of the things we have been grasping.  We need to see that many daily decisions are about aiming ourselves at the dominion of the just, merciful, and compassionate God.

Next, when Peter, nervously asks, “We’ve given up things for you, haven’t we, Lord? Won’t we be rewarded?” Jesus answers apocalyptically: “Yes, any such unburdening is and will be rewarded, but in a dimension of being you have just started to taste and see. Reward will come with the real future, not the one you have been used to be chasing. Meanwhile you will know persecution. But in the end there will be the eternal reward of God’s love.

Jesus ends, “Many who are at the head of the line will wind up last. Many last will be first.” And if you had this assurance on the Oregon Trail you would surely rejoice. There were those achingly slow to learn. They insisted on hauling grandma’s dresser that they shipped from Ireland. They were at the head of the wagon train in Missouri, but fell further and further back. Yet even they got wise in the mountains and somehow made it. The first will wind up last, but if they choose the good and choose life and choose the Lord, they too will make it.  

I personally get ill these days watching the news. A very bad ending to humanity’s Oregon Trail seems to be taking shape. Can’t we see it? Ethiopian children and infants are starving to death. Immigrants desperately flee war, gang violence, oppression, and climate change, and seek refuge in Europe and the United States. Fires, floods and hurricanes are on the rise. And all the while our leaders can’t even work together to distribute vaccines, stop the rich from avoiding taxes, or make essential budget choices that care for the common good. The wagon train is falling apart. We must stick together to survive the trials ahead. But our leaders are frightfully failing us.

Yet the real heart of the problem isn’t up there at the top echelons. It is here in each of our hearts. We are the ones who choose whom to trust or fear. We are the ones who vote or get involved, or just turn away. We ultimately hold the purse strings. And we are the ones who must know where we are headed and what we should carry along the way—what will give life and what will just wear us down.

There is a mighty judgment coming. There will be a reckoning. The first will be last and the last first. Where will we be?

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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