Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – October 14, 2018
“Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” I imagine this rich young man was seeking wisdom and new life. He must have felt like something was missing or off. And so he runs to Jesus and kneels before him in a way that only those who truly recognize who Jesus is have done thus far in Mark’s Gospel. “‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” We know how the story ends. He goes away grieving, “for he had many possessions.” Those are the words that hit us and may even make us bristle, protesting about giving everything away or turning into socialists. But is this story really about the poor?
What would have happened if he had actually sold everything and followed Jesus? Perhaps we’d have heard more about him – like a biblical St. Francis, abandoning his life of luxury and devoting himself to Jesus instead. But we’ll never know that story. What we do hear is the reminder that God alone is good. That all goodness belongs to God. Jesus goes on to remind the young man of the commandments, but interestingly enough, he doesn’t list any of the commandments having to do with God. He doesn’t speak about having no other gods, about keeping God’s name holy, or about observing the Sabbath. Jesus doesn’t list the commandments related to our relationship with God and the rich young man doesn’t notice. It seems this young man misses that he’s idolizing his money, profaning God’s name by not caring for the poor, and perhaps not observing holy Sabbath rest because he’s working to obtain his wealth. So he responds that he’s kept all of the listed commandments, totally missing the ones honoring God. And we hear that Jesus looked at him and loved him.
He loved him. In all his imperfection and his blindness toward his own shortcomings, he loved him. In love, Jesus tells him that he is lacking one thing – and that he is to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor in order to find his treasure in heaven. He is supposed to give his wealth to the people he thinks are materially lacking, yet Jesus tells him he’s the one lacking. That must have been greatly upsetting. Not only is he to give it all away, but he’s also been measured up by the Teacher and found wanting. That’s probably not the news he was expecting to hear!
Jesus invites him into loving trust in God’s provision – but there is also fear, anxiety, and distrust in the process of letting go of what we cling to so tightly. In Wednesday Bible Study we read about Augustine, that saint of the early church. After a wild and crazy youth of partying, pear stealing (yes, pears…), promiscuity, and studying philosophy, Augustine gradually returned to the faith of his childhood. But even then, as much as he wanted to turn toward God, he wasn’t quite ready to give up his pleasure-seeking life. He even famously prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
Even if our exact circumstances aren’t the same as Augustine, we can understand the tension between the desire to follow God and the hesitation that dogs us. It’s what we see with the rich man. He shows up, desiring to know “‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” And when Jesus invites him into a life of trust – of letting go of his wealth to enter into new life, he doesn’t know how to let go. And so he goes away shocked and grieving.
It is upsetting, unsettling, and unnerving to find that something has to change in our lives. There is fear of letting go or making a shift to try something new. Or, as the prayer of the day puts it: “forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead.” It’s scary and disconcerting because it usually looks like abandoning our idols or the ways of being that have worked for us for so long. But, eventually, we reach a point where those same systems and patterns do not work for us. And we go through a type of death. It’s as painful as a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle.
As Matisyahu, a Jewish rapper put it in his hit song “King Without a Crown:” “Strip away the layers and reveal your soul, Got to give yourself up and then you become whole, You’re a slave to yourself and you don’t even know, You want to live the fast life but your brain moves slow, If you’re trying to stay high then you’re bound to stay low, You want God but you can’t deflate your ego.”
“You want God but you can’t deflate your ego.” That’s the crux of this Gospel story, of Augustine’s struggle, and of our own struggles with sin and faith. With all of our stuff, with all of our securities, there is always the temptation to think we have it all, that we can fix it all, or control it all. That it’s all of our own making or doing. That we can put ourselves first. But as it’s written in the 14th century mystical book The Cloud of Unknowing: “When we reach the end of what we know, that’s where we find God.”
The disciples worried after Jesus spoke about how hard it was to enter the kingdom of heaven. “Then who can be saved?!” I imagine Jesus smiling at them lovingly as he explains, “‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’” Our wild friend Augustine realized this later in his life of faith: “Christ is not valued at all, unless he is valued above all.” When Christ is at the center of who we are and what we are about, we are transformed in the course of our pilgrimage on earth. Less and less we cling to our egos, the things we idolized, and those false securities we relied on.
It’s not about what we have to do to inherit eternal life or enter the kingdom. It’s about receiving the gift God has already given us. That gift of grace is greater than anything we can possibly accumulate or build for ourselves, or anything else we try to hang onto. And yet we so often reject grace because receiving it means we are in need and we don’t quite know what changes God is going to make in our lives. We hear it in Hebrews: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
It’s as painful as a sword cleaving away those unhealthy things we want to hold on. Our wealth, power, successes, failures, opinions, fears, doubts, egos. And yet it’s in that pain and grieving – that holy process of being separated from all those things that we see God at work. Augustine says, “In my deepest wound I saw your glory, and it dazzled me.” Don’t you want to be dazzled by the brilliance of God at work in your life and your community? I pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”
Because it’s there in our woundedness and weakness, that Christ looks upon us with love and offers us healing. He looks at us not with anger or frustration, but invites us to enter the kingdom. To let go of those things that are making it difficult to live in the freedom he offers. To remember that “for God all things are possible.” To remember that it’s not through knowledge or works or stuff that we reach God. That it’s only through the wide love of God reaching us. Because Jesus never ever stops looking at us lovingly and inviting us. It might be hard to relinquish your idols, but the power of the Holy Spirit is at work in you even now, making you new. And there is nothing the Spirit cannot do.
This rich young man was called to give everything to the people he thinks are lacking and have his scarcity met with divine abundance. But it’s not all about possessions. It could be about anything we cling to and are possessive or controlling of. And in spending time with those who are different than us we discover what we lack – courage, heart, joy, patience, compassion, perseverance, humility… Even as we recognize our woundedness, we are transformed by others’ strengths and gifts in community. Jesus looks at you and loves you. He longs to set you free. Will you let go and follow him? Amen.