October 14, 2018 Sermon preached by The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund
Year B; Proper 23; 10.14.2018
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him…”
The deepest desire for most human beings is to be seen, really seen; and loved, really loved. The man in Mark’s gospel ran right up to Jesus. He knelt right in front of him. He pleaded, “Tell me how to have eternal life.” “Tell me that I’m living right and will be joined with God in God’s kingdom. Will God love me enough to grant that?”
The man had been an observant Jew since he was young. He was able to answer “yes” to all the questions Jesus asked him referring to the neighbor ethics of the Ten Commandments. The man was clear-eyed in answering, “Yes, I have kept the commandments since I was young.” Surely, like many people, even observant, religious people, at one time or another, he might have cheated on his wife, or mistreated his father and mother, or lied, or taken something that wasn’t his. But, I believe him when he said he had kept all the commandments. Jesus believed him, too.
So, why didn’t Jesus just say, “You have lived righteously. Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into my Father’s joy”? But he didn’t. He had one more thing to ask of the man. “Sell all you have and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.”
This gave the man a shock. He was grieved to have been challenged in this way because, for the first time we learn that he had many possessions. He knew he couldn’t take this one last step. It was a very high step, shocking to him to be told this requirement. And he turned away, in sorrow…”
Part of me wants to ask Jesus, “Why would you let him go away like that? Couldn’t you see that he had worked hard to live as a good, observant Jew? Clearly, you would have loved to have had him join you and the other disciples. Couldn’t you have worked with him on his habit of gathering so many possessions? He was hungry for connection, for good news and you set the bar too high for him. Instead, you delivered him ‘hard news.’”
We can see that the disciples were wondering some of the same things. They said, “Hey, wait a minute, ‘Who CAN be saved if HE can’t?!’” And “gazing at them with eyes of love,” he said, “….for God all things are possible.”
There is hard news for us all in this story. We come to Jesus for his love, his compassion, his grace, his mercy. We receive all of this good news joyfully and freely. But sometimes, when he asks us for the hard things, the difficult things of discipleship, we are shocked.
“Sell all you have and give the money to the poor and follow me.” Even the most generous of us is challenged by this command. Maybe a rare saint, like Francis of Assisi does this. But generally, even faithful Christians meet our “…captivity to possessions…” or habits, or fears, or hate, or pride, “…and this prevents us from living into the full life of the kingdom.” The full freedom of following Jesus.
Bible scholar Charles Campbell writes, “Jesus speaks his sharp words to the rich man out of love, because he wants him to be free…” Jesus was able to identify the very thing holding back the man who so longingly desired to connect with God’s kingdom, the desire he had had all his life. And in the end, he couldn’t move forward in freedom, but returned to his possessions and their burden.
This story naturally makes me think about my possessions – my relationship with my possessions; my relationship with my money. The person who helps me complete my tax forms always tells me she is impressed by my charitable giving. I give a prideful blush and say, “Oh, my faith calls me to do this.” But in that little, prideful blush, I know that I’m like the rich man who hasn’t really embraced a sense of unburdening myself to give wholeheartedly to follow Jesus’ call.
I’ve shared with you before that after John died and I prepared to move here, I was proud to say that I was able to give away half of the contents of my house, the large rectory in New Jersey. But you should have seen the amount of “possessions” that the rectory contained! To reduce it by half was nothing – certainly no sacrifice!
I wonder what my relationship with God would be if my entire house was flattened and I had lost everything like the people in Palu, Indonesia. Have you seen those photos? And there are now photos of Mexico Beach, Florida. Natural disasters of tsunamis and hurricanes decimating entire villages show us how horrifying loss of possessions and loss of life really is like.
A Catholic charity worker tells the story of a woman from an Indonesian village he interviewed at the make-shift aid station. She was holding her 3-month-old child. He said, “Even though I was talking to many people quickly, I remember this woman. I couldn’t get her name. But her face and her story are locked in my heart. She cried as she held her baby. Her four-year-old was playing nearby.”
“She said to me, ‘When the earthquake happened, I fell to the ground. We laid there and couldn’t get up. When it stopped, we jumped and ran. We ran to higher land and when I looked back, my whole village was sinking. It was a loud roar and there were screams from other people who were running. Then everything was gone. That night, we only had the clothes on our bodies. Everything we own was buried. There is nothing to go back to and nothing to salvage. We gathered with some of our neighbours on high open ground and waited for daylight.”
One of the things I have learned in the experience of terrible loss, is that compassion, desire for human connection, generosity and caring for one another become the operating forces in most human beings. These strengths and virtues come from another place, a holy place in ourselves, different from the place of fear, clutching to “things,” cravings and selfishness.
I met two women on Thursday here at St. Paul’s who had driven to the Narcotics Anonymous meeting from Damariscotta because ours is the only meeting from Augusta to Portland. I greeted them…they looked to be about my age. I told them that after my husband died, my spiritual director suggested that I go to a 12-step group because people who are in recovery recognize the depth of loss and understand the hard journey to dig out of it.
The first two steps of recovery are instrumental in beginning to live a life of unburdening: Step One, “admitting that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable” Step Two, “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” In a supportive, loving community people in recovery gather to guide each other along the way and connect deeply with that Power who loves us and desires to restore us to sanity – to freedom.
I do not want to be hard on that rich man in the gospel story who deeply desired to connect with Jesus and gain eternal life in the kingdom of God. We know he couldn’t in the end follow Jesus. What sorrow it caused for him! But I do wonder if eventually the man came to the conclusion that his possessions were burdening him so much that one day, he did give them up. I wonder if he eventually joined the Jesus Movement.
There is hope for him. There is hope for us.
“Jesus, looking at us, loves us…”
The gospel truth for us is that all the while we face his hard news, he is loving us more deeply than we can ever imagine.