In our gospel reading, we have a serious problem. The wealthy young man had become fully indoctrinated in the world’s way of success. He was a man among men. He probably called himself a self-made man. He represents us. We get caught up in ourselves, in our humanness. We’re distracted from God by the world around us. We wouldn’t notice God if He walked right passed us.
Who do we think we are? Who are you? Well, you came to listen to my sermon so you’re my hero.
Who am I? I’m Ed Camp. A husband. A son, a brother, a father, a Sunday school teacher and Deacon-in-training who has been studying the bible regularly for over thirty years. Does that earn me a spot in Heaven? No. Does that mean I can walk around with a holier-than-thou attitude? No.
What else? Oh yeah. I’ve always been able to draw well so should I consider myself an artist? No. When I get in the zone I can see the image of what I’m going to draw on the paper so someone up there is helping me out, so I can’t take any credit there either. However, as a kid my dream was to become a comic-book artist.
I’m into superheroes. I love all the superhero movies. I read and collected comic books as a kid. As my wife would say I am a comic book geek. The comic book world is mainly made up of two companies. Marvel and DC. Thor, the God of Thunder is my favorite Marvel character and Batman is my favorite DC character. Funny that one is a God and one is just a man, a Batman but still just a man. Superman is one of these heroes also.
What do these superheroes have to do with religion or more specifically a sermon? I’ll get to that. Many of these superheroes were created by Jewish writers and artists who had to hide their ethnicity. Writer Stanley Martin Lieber and artist Jacob Kurtzberg were the creators behind Thor. They’re now known as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Robert Kahn and Milton Finger were the co-architects behind Batman. They’re known as Bob Kane and Bill Finger. They needed to hide their faith due to anti-Semitism in the U.S. publishing industry.
Superman is a very interesting character. Many other heroes became heroes but he didn’t become Superman, he was born Superman. His everyday clothes are red and blue with the big red “S” on his chest but the costume he puts on are glasses and a business suit to blend in with humanity. His alter ego is a mild-mannered reporter named Clark Kent. Clark is Superman’s overall critique of the human race. He needs glasses because we don’t see very well, we miss the big picture and we sometimes don’t realize when something big and important is standing right in front of us.
Very often these heroes have origins from the Bible. Superman was written as a modern-day messiah with Mosaic origins and the strength of Samson. This character is the brainchild of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, children of Jewish immigrants. The logo on his chest evolved multiple times in comic canon. There is some mystery as to what it really meant for his creators. For the readers, it is supposed to be a coat of arms for the house of El since Superman is Kal-El the son of Jor-El and Lara-El from an alien planet called Krypton. El is also a Hebrew term for God. However, the way it was drawn it looks very similar to the Hebrew “Lamedh” which is a pictograph of a shepherd’s staff and represents authority given from the father to speak on behalf of the father. It’s also the first letter of Superman as well as the last names of creators Siegel and Shuster. Bear with me there is a point to all of this.
The messianic aspect of Superman is very interesting from a Christian point of view. Jesus didn’t become Jesus, He always was Jesus. Jesus was born human, but He is still God. What about His clothes? He was wrapped in swaddling which in Bethlehem was used as a protective wrapping for sheep being raised for sacrifice to help them remain unblemished. The tunic Jesus wore before His crucifixion was seen as the clothes of a man worthy of great honor by the Roman soldiers. The witnessed a man who did not cry out as others often did and he even prayed for his enemies. These soldiers were so impressed with this man that they gambled for his clothes at the foot of the cross. God put on human flesh so that He can experience our limitations, pain and fear similar to Clark Kent. And we usually also think of Jesus from a letter, the lowercase “t” which is a symbol of a form of execution that gives us hope because the risen Jesus is no longer on the cross.
Back to our problem in the Gospel represented by the rich, young man. In the Old Testament, God passes by in order to reveal Himself. Jesus was setting out on his journey. Passing by for revelation. Good Teacher the young man says but this is an ignorant greeting for a rabbi let alone God. A rabbi would have corrected this young man the same way. The focus should be on God who is the only good and he doesn’t recognize God. Then the young man asks, “What must I do?” What can we do? We’re nothing without His grace. Only God can provide you with what you need for that.
Imagine asking Superman, in the middle of saving the world, “Hey, what can I do?” Kind of silly, right? However, Superman is not God, so he might say something to the effect of keep kryptonite away from me. Superman was given a weakness in order to emulate Samson and his weaknesses of wine, women and hair-cuts. God has no weakness. Jesus only chose to have limitations while on earth.
I’m sure if we saw Clark Kent we may think he might need help. If we saw Jesus as a 1st century Jewish man, we might miss the fact the He is God in the flesh. Well, that’s what Jesus wants the young man to discover. We are just like the Romans who I mentioned earlier. They saw Jesus as a man of honor but still just a man. They were blind to God. Jesus is asking, “Why don’t you recognize me?” How do we seek God? Are we blind to the truth? The truth that Jesus still has that humanity today just without the limitations.
Back to Jesus in the Gospel. There’s the law. As Jesus reminds the young man, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” The young man answers, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”
This reminds me of the Pharisee in Luke 18, who prayed making a scene standing by himself saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The young man and the Pharisee may be thinking of many of the latter commandments but what about the first commandment? You shall have no other Gods? Are either one of them putting God first? Are they even considering their neighbors?
Our Gospel continues: And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Jesus loved him. God loves us. Let’s remember that.
What was Superman’s greatest power? Not his strength or his ability to fly but in the comic-book reality it would be his empathy for the human race. Without empathy Superman would ignore the humans in need of his help. Again, a superhero trying to live up to God’s grace within the limits of our limited knowledge and creativity.
Jesus asked the young man to surrender all he had to the poor and this left the young man disheartened, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Again, he represents us. Where is our humility? Where is our trust? Do we have a child-like faith? Would we recognize Jesus as God if He stood before us? Do we strive to seek God? What would we be willing to give up for God? Do we even have empathy for our fellow citizens in our community like Superman did for the people in Smallville or Metropolis? Can we sacrifice some of our love and time daily for our neighbors in need?
What Superman gets right is his attachment to his community and the humans around him. Here is where Superman comes close to our Messiah. Jesus connected with people’s thoughts and feelings. He understood that new ideas need to be connected with existing frames of reference if they are to last. He seldom pressed for “closure” or a decision. Instead, He understood that time is required for ideas to simmer and for people to own them before they act on them. In our human eyes we may see Jesus as giving up on the young man who walked away but by opening our mind to Jesus’s super-power of planting spiritual seeds for the Holy Spirit to do its work then we would know that His words are still at work with the young man and everyone else who heard them and those who still need to hear them. This young man found success, wealth and everything he thought he needed in life. Jesus only pointed out that he was truly lost. Once this is realized then he can be found. Comics and movies may come and go but Jesus is eternal. And so are His words.
The point is how we can let ourselves be distracted from God (just like the young ruler) even when everything points to Him, He is all around us and sometimes standing right in front of our face speaking to us. We need the Gospel of Christ who never changes. Without Him, we are lost and have nothing. He is what it is all about. We need to use what God has equipped us with in order to be brave in the face of the enemy and share the Gospel of Christ, the “true” adventure or the only “real” super-hero.
What are our super-powers? Remember He loves us. His eternal love and grace combined with our love and our grace. We need to love and trust God. And take that love further to our neighbors. We need to put on our Holy-Spirit capes, pray and share His Gospel and see, hear and know that it is the truth. We shouldn’t hide our faith like many of the comic writers and artists used to do. God has a plan for ALL of us, just like the young man and we need to trust in that and love so that the seed planted in us can blossom into magnificent crops to feed our congregation and the community around us. That seed is Jesus and it will never stop growing and multiplying. Truth, Jesus and the Grace-filled way instead of up, up and oy vey!
Let us pray: God let’s us acknowledge your Grace and Mercy. God, give us the courage to stand on our own two feet and bravely do our part of your eternal plan. Give us the determination not to expect others to do for us what we can do for ourselves. And give us confidence to know that, while we look for signs of greatness in others, true greatness comes from within, as your Spirit equips us with Christ-like super powers of true faith. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.