Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

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    Oct 14, 2018

    21st Sunday after Pentecost

    Passage: Mark 10:17-31

    Preacher: The Rev. Timothy Patterson

    Series: Year B: 2017-2018

    Detail:

     

     

    “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  If we were to compile a list of our “top-ten least favorite sayings of Jesus,” I am guessing that these would show up on a lot of our lists.

    Brings to mind a story about W.C. Fields, the legendary comedian. In failing health and near the end of his notoriously irreverent and self-indulgent life, Fields was found by his doctor propped up on his sick-bed, intently reading the Bible.  His doctor said, “W.C., what are you doing with that Bible?”  With an honest wit, Fields replied, “Well doc, the truth is, I’m lookin’ for loopholes.” Lookin’ for loopholes.

     

    There aren’t a lot of loopholes in today’s passage or in this entire section from Mark’s gospel which we have been reading the last few Sundays.  The teachings are radical, the demands are extreme, the language is harsh and uncompromising.  And, if you have been in church any of the last few Sundays, you have heard various preachers try to explain why.  Jesus was a wisdom teacher – all about a radical shift in consciousness.  So some of his teachings were not intended as practical advice or formulas for living meant to be taken literally.  They are teachings meant to shock, to wake people up, to short-circuit their habitual ways of thinking, in order to awaken in them a higher consciousness, awaken them to the experience of a new reality, namely the amazing grace, the transforming love and the life-changing presence of God.

    Some of you, particularly Presbyterians, will remember the famous question from the old Presbyterian catechism (and, I hope, excuse the old sexist language).  “What is the chief end of Man?”  The answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  This is what human life is really all about.  This is the “end,” the goal, for which we are here.  This is the source of that wellspring of joy that gives this life its true meaning and purpose.  In the words of our mission statement, it is “to know Christ and to make him known.”  This is what human life is really about.  Jesus says to the rich young man, “you lack one thing.”  Well, this is the “one thing.”  Paraphrasing St. Augustine, we were made by God and for God, and our hearts will be forever restless until they rest in God.  This is the one thing that is truly important. This is the “pearl of great price.”  Knowing God.  This is the treasure hidden in the field that is worth selling everything you own in order to buy that field.

     

    And, for a wisdom teacher like Jesus, any obstacle, anything that distracts people or prevents people from receiving this treasure - anything! - anything that stands in the way of achieving this end needs to be identified and decisively removed, let go of. And thus Jesus says, if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Your hand, cut it off, your foot, cut it off.  If money is the obstacle, give it all away.  Not necessarily a formula for living that is to be taken literally, but a way of waking people up to the truth that knowing God really is this important!  Because, if you don’t know God, you have missed the real point of the life you

    have been given. And when you truly do know God, it changes everything


    I will never forget the first time I truly awakened to the reality of God’s living presence.  It was, to be precise, on September 22, 1974.  It obviously made an impression on me.  The date is burned into my consciousness.  And, up to that point, I had been going to church all my life.   As the young man in the gospel reading said, when Jesus lists out the commandments, he said “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  But the point is, there is a world of difference between observing the externals of “religion” and the true transformation of life that God offers and Jesus longs for us to know.  I had been going to church all my life, but on September 22, 1974, for the first time, the light, love and living presence of God truly landed in my heart, completely blew my mind wide open, awakened my soul in an entirely new way, and my life has not been the same ever since.  There is my life before that date and my life since that date.  A total shift in consciousness - a metanoia.  Now, this happened at the beginning of my senior year in college.  At that time of life, of course, the obvious question hanging in the air was, well, what are you going to do when you graduate?  Before that experience, my best answer was “maybe Law School ....?”  After that experience, my answer, literally, was I am going to seek first the Kingdom of God and let all the other stuff kind of work itself out.  Now, at that time, my parents were in the process of completing payment for my four years of an expensive college education at Duke University.  Let me just say, this was not the answer they were looking for.  That after graduation my plan was to seek first the Kingdom of God, but that was the truth.  And that is actually what I have done with my life since that day.  In my humanly imperfect way, I have put my connection with the living presence of God first, and pretty much let the other stuff, jobs, relationships, money, etc., I have let all the other stuff kind of work itself out.  And I haven’t regretted that decision for a minute.  Like everyone else, I have had my ups and downs, but ultimately God has always been there for me and provided all I really needed and more. Not sure I’ve always kept my part, but God has always kept God’s part of the bargain.

    In the Gospel story, it seems clear that Jesus is drawn to this young man as someone who is a true seeker - someone who is genuinely struggling with the meaning of life and the truth of God. Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?  The young man clearly senses that there is something more - something more than just the externals of religion.  “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  I have gone to church all my life, and still there is something missing, a void in my life that remains to be filled.  There must be something that will finally fill this inner longing, this hunger in the depths of my soul.

    And it’s quite striking how the story is written.  It says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  This look of love is important.  Because this is where Jesus is ultimately coming from, with this young man and with every one of us.  He is telling us and teaching us the truth out of love.  And I think Jesus does more than just look at this young man, he also looks into him, deeply, like a doctor making a diagnosis.

     

    Now (as Gordon Cosby points out), if you’re trying to heal an addiction (and money can function very much like an addiction), you have to start with the actual problem.  For example, if you’re working with an alcoholic, the task is to challenge that person around their drinking, not to fuss around with everything else and avoid what is the real issue. You say, the bottom line is, first, you’ve got to stop abusing alcohol, or prescription drugs, or whatever the real problem may be. You need to deal with that.

    Jesus looks at him, again, with love, and chooses his healing words carefully.  “You lack one thing.  Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.”  It seems clear to Jesus that this young man wants desperately to cross over and go through the narrow doorway that leads to eternal life, but he is like a camel with a huge load on its back - a load that keeps banging into the top of that doorway.  And Jesus says, with love, if you really want to get through the doorway, you’re going to have to leave that load behind.

     

    In Christ, God is seeking to give us this astounding gift of God’s own life, eternal life, the life for which God created us and the gift that will finally satisfy the deepest longing of our soul. The catch is, in the words of Barbara Taylor: “You cannot accept God’s gift if you have no free hands to receive it with.  You cannot make room for it if all your rooms are already full.  You cannot follow if you are not free to go.  And that’s why the rich young man went away sorrowful.  Because, all at once, he understood he was not truly free.  His wealth was supposed to make him free, that’s what the culture told him, but looking into Jesus’ eyes at that moment, he suddenly understood he was not free.  Invited to follow, instead he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  He was not free to receive the gift.”  Jacob Needleman, in his book Money and the Meaning of Life, gives this definition of hell.  “Hell is the state in which we are barred from receiving what we truly need because of the value we give to what we merely want.”

     

    As I said, money can function like an addiction. Here is the thing, and we repeat this teaching a lot because we believe it to be profoundly true.  There is a God-shaped hole at the center of every human soul.  At the very center of every human life, there is a God-shaped hole.  And though we try to fill that God-shaped hole with all sorts of other things, that’s what addiction is about, when you need more and more of what doesn’t work, God is the “one thing” that can finally fill that hole.  One of the reasons Jesus talks so much about money, twenty-four times as I recall, it is because Jesus knows that money is one of the most common things human beings use to try to fill that God-shaped hole.  In Servant Leadership we talk about the three core instinctual drives that direct so much of our human activity.  It is basic developmental psychology, and the first is the instinctual drive for security, the deep and universal human need for a sense of security.  We all have it. We all need it.  Jesus says our true security is found in God.  But, here’s the thing, money can be such an easy substitute.  And it can, in fact, provide us with some measure of security.  But according to Jesus it is ultimately a false security, and the reason money can be so dangerous spiritually is that it can so easily become a God-substitute - an idol - a false god.  For Jesus, the wisdom teacher, like the eye or the hand or the foot that causes us to sin and thus to miss the real point of our living, money can be the thing that prevents us or distracts us from the true task and purpose for which we came into this world, to know God - to know God as the source of our true security.

     

    It is important to understand that Jesus’ word to this young man is not a call to poverty for poverty’s sake.  Rather, it is a call to give up the “religion of money.”  It is really a call to freedom.  A call to give up the “religion of money” that was actually keeping his soul in bondage, for the “religion of Jesus” that would set him free.  Because, in itself, money is not bad at all.  Kept in its proper place, money is a great blessing and a gift from God.  The challenge is to put money in its proper place.  As someone said, money is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.  And one of the most direct ways the “religion of Jesus” can put money in its proper place is through the spiritual practice of giving.  To release that tight, clenched grip of fear, anxiety, scarcity and hoarding, open our hands and our hearts and let the generosity and abundance of God flow freely in and through our lives.  To find our true security in the presence and love of God.

     

    Jesus told the rich young man to give all his money away.  Apparently, this was Jesus sense of what it would take to shock this young man into releasing his grip in order to be free enough to follow him.  The general “rule of thumb” in the Bible is less extreme.  That, of course is the principle of tithing.  Which starts with acknowledging God as the source of it all - all money, all material things - everything.  As we say at the 8:00 service, “All things come of Thee, O Lord.”  Then offering back to God a percentage, classically one-tenth of what you are blessed with in thanksgiving to God who is the source of it all.  “And of Thine own have we given Thee.”  And in offering back that percentage, to acknowledge the source of it all, to glorify God, and to support the work of God in the world, money is put into its proper place, as a “wonderful servant” rather than the master of life.

    It is a journey of faith.  Wherever you may find yourself on this journey, 1%, 3%, 5%, 10% or more, before taxes, after taxes, I don’t care.  That’s between you and God. The important thing is to get on and be on the journey, because ultimately the real issue isn’t money at all.  The real issue is knowing and trusting in God.  The real question is: in what or whom do you trust for your ultimate security.  It’s a question of faith.

     

    As Christians, God has invited us into a covenant relationship.   God promises: if you will trust Me with your life, if you will seek first My kingdom, trust me, everything else you need will indeed be provided for you.  Try me.  Because, in the context of this covenant relationship, it is God’s great pleasure to give you not only what you need materially but also that for which you were made spiritually - Himself, and the gift of eternal life.  This is the covenant into which you were baptized.  At your baptism, the question was asked: Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?  That’s the question.  And the repeated answer to those baptismal questions is what?  “I will, with God’s help.”  Which sounds curiously reminiscent of Jesus’ words at the end of this Gospel lesson.  He says, “For mortals it may be impossible, but not for God.  For God, all things are possible.”  I will, with God’s help.  Let us pray for God’s help in living this covenant, for the blessings of God’s own life to flow abundantly in and through ours, and for the great joy that flows with it.