Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 14 2018, 10:30 am
Sherri Golisky, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Ps 22:1-15; Heb 4:12-16; Mk 10:17-31

Good morning. I’ve had a chance to meet many of you, and I look forward to getting to know all of you more in my time as a student here at St. Stephen’s. I feel thankful for the chance to join your community for these coming months—it is good to be here.

A good number of years ago, at a time of transition in my life, one of my spiritual mentors shared a word with me that has always stuck: “God always answers us in the deeps, never in the shallows of our souls.” God takes our questions and our seeking seriously. God is not in the business of light or shallow responses to the deep seeking of our spirits. God answers in the deeps, never in the shallows of our souls.

This morning we hear the story of the rich man who comes seeking—he asks a relatively straightforward question of Jesus, not realizing the response would call for changes at the very foundation of his life. There are parallel stories in Luke and Matthew; generally, we know the story as that of the rich ruler or the rich young man. It’s the story of a man who receives a totally unexpected answer from Jesus: when Jesus states what actually is required of him 08to enter into eternal life, the man finds himself shocked: and so instead of taking up the invitation to follow, he turns away in grief and goes on his way.

Jesus is making a very clear point about wealth and its place—or rather its complete lack of a place—in the Kingdom of God; and there is no watering this point down. To enter into God’s kingdom is to enter into an entire new way of life, a new kind of community of compassion and of radical love where the reality of riches—that someone would somehow be above or have more at the expense of others having less—simply cannot fit. In fact, it is an impossible fit. Like a camel in the eye of a needle.

But perhaps, this is by no means the extent of what Jesus wants to teach us here. When the rich man leaves, we notice that Jesus turns to the disciples. This isn’t a teaching only for or about the wealthy but also for all of us: at heart, this is a teaching about discipleship—about what it means, what you and I are being called to, when we renew our commitment day after day as followers of Jesus. Jesus is showing us here what’s at the core of true discipleship. And while he’s at it, he’s also teaching us a little something about grace.

I love Mark’s Gospel—it has the reputation of being quick-paced and to the point—and so sometimes it’s easy to miss the significance of Mark’s details. Did you notice how this passage began—how this rich man approached Jesus? It’s a detail that’s missing in the other versions, in Matthew, someone simply “came to Jesus and said,” and in Luke, a “certain ruler asked him” but here in Mark, this man “ran up and knelt before him”—this coming and kneeling before Jesus, it’s a posture people might take when they come before a Teacher, seeking something—looking for some help or healing. We’ve seen it before in Mark, for example when Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs Jesus to heal his daughter. And so when he asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life,” it seems this is somehow a question that effects his whole being. Despite his high position and his obedience in following the law, just maybe, he knows that something is still missing, that there is something more; he seeks from his depths. We all know what it is to kneel at Jesus’ feet, with all our questions and hopes, thirsting for a word.

There’s a second detail found only in Mark’s telling of the story—did you notice it, right before Jesus says to him “you lack one thing, and tells him to sell, give, and then follow him” right before this, it says Jesus loved him. Looking at him, Jesus loved him, and then instructed him. Before God, we all stand the same: we are looked at and we are loved—we are loved, and we are all called to follow. We’re picking up on some of the great equalizers—we all stand before God with seeking hearts, we all stand as God’s beloved. And none of us, rich or poor, good or not so good, can work our own way into God’s salvation, into that fullness of life by our own efforts. Even with all our best doings and strivings to get it right, on our own terms it is always impossible; same for the rich man, same for us all. It is by God’s gift alone that it is possible. The gift is given, and we are invited to follow.

For about 4 years, I worked as a chaplain with young people in custody, youth who had been in trouble with the law. I picked up pretty quickly, that youth can often have a very honest, very intuitive way of understanding some of the truths of the Gospel. And I learned so much during those years. Many of my conversations I had with some of the young men would revolve around what I began to call their “not yet” reasoning—their belief in God itself wasn’t an obstacle to becoming Christians, it was because they knew they couldn’t do it yet. They intuited that to become Christian, to truly walk the walk, it was not something you would do half-heartedly; that if you’re going to do it, you really have to do it, they would say. And they realized that that would mean a whole new identity—giving up everything they had come to know and to find security in, their reputation and way of life and ties, in order to accept a new identity of living for God. And so they would often say, not yet. It wasn’t not ever, it was simply, not yet. The loss, the cost, for now, seemed too much.

This is something, I think, of what happened to our rich man. Inheriting eternal life, and starting to enter that life in the here-and-now, meant something far more radical than the man imagined. It wasn’t just the thought of giving up his possessions that he couldn’t handle, but he knew that following Jesus meant that he would have to give up his entire identity—everything that came with his wealth, his security and status and privilege, would have to go. Wealth in Jesus’ time was even perceived as a sort of divine favour, and so perhaps he feared that, too, would slip away. It truly would mean a whole new life.

I’ve read that the translation behind “he went away grieving” can mean something like “clouded over” —like he could no longer see clearly. The cost of what he would lose, clouded over his desire of what he came to find. I wonder if in small ways, the same thing happens to us, more often then we realize.

Jesus always invites us to more. But we know that this something more, comes with a letting go. There are costs and fears that cloud over us, costs and fears that get in the way of our giving up those pieces of our old identity, our old securities, our old attachments, that we need to in order to step into the new. Even when Jesus promises we will receive a hundredfold compared to what we have left behind, it is hard to let those pieces go.

You might agree with me that one of the joys of living into our new identities, is living into the new family that we have joined. Family not through blood or background, but through faith and a shared vision of seeing God’s kingdom begin to be realized here among us. Perhaps we live into our new identity by thinking about who we grow to identify with, who do we stand with, who do we join with, whose voice do we defend, who do we struggle with, who do we love. Our identity is no longer our own but it is bound with Christ’s. We discover it by joining with the powerless, the unpopular, the oppressed, the forgotten, the hopeless. There is risk and there is cost, and yet there we find our life.

The old gospel tune “Just a closer walk with thee” has been playing in my mind as I’ve prepared this message. I think we all know it, and may we pray, that when we ask to have a closer walk with you, O Lord, may we each have the courage to truly follow. Amen.