Sermon for Sunday, October 11th, 2015 || Proper 23; Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost || Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4: 12-16; Mark 10: 17-31 || The Rev. Margot Critchfield
I wonder if that gospel reading leaves you feeling as ill at ease as it does me. The biblical commentator Lamar Williamson says that, “if we’re not shocked, appalled, grieved or amazed,” by this gospel that either we haven’t really heard it, or we’ve heard it so many times that we can’t really hear it at all anymore.”
It does seem an especially fitting lesson to have coupled with Paul’s description of God’s word as, “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” Piercing indeed–this gospel cuts to the bone!
Are we to interpret it literally—that we need to sell everything we own before we can be real followers of Jesus, or are we to interpret it metaphorically—in the hope of making it’s demand on us a little more realistic, and let’s face it, more palatable?
Because as persuasive as God’s word is on what Paul calls, “the thoughts and intentions of the heart”, and as intimidating as it may be to hear that “…all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account,” most of us aren’t exactly ready to go home, sell everything we have, and give the proceeds to the poor.
On the other hand, if any us were actually to meet Jesus face to face, like the rich man in this morning’s gospel did, and Jesus personally invited us to follow him, I’m willing to bet there’s not a person here who wouldn’t drop anything, sell anything, or do anything to follow him. Just imagine Jesus showing up at your front door with a personal invitation for you to be one of his disciples. Imagine him looking at you in the eyes, and loving you the same way the gospel tells us he loved the rich man.
Knowing what we know now—which of course the rich man didn’t—how could any of us resist such divine love–such freely offered and overwhelmingly joy-filled divine love?
So what are we to do with this passage? Maybe we can begin by remembering that Jesus’ first and most important call for each of us is the call to discipleship, the call to become his followers, and to be his agents in the healing and reconciliation of this world. But that while that indisputably includes the renunciation of something—and invariably something painful—only in this passage, with this man, does it mean the renunciation of wealth.
In fact for the disciples, as Jesus makes clear later in this very same reading, it means giving up one’s “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or field.”
In other gospel readings we’ve heard in recent weeks, the call has been to the renunciation of one’s cleverness, one’s sophistication, or one’s social standing; the renunciation of one’s expectations, one’s pride, or even one’s very life. And in still other gospels it’s one’s weaknesses or one’s brokenness, one’s blindness or one’s demons that need to be got rid of before one is free to follow Jesus.
But notice the common denominator: Giving up whatever gets in the way of being free to follow Jesus, free to be his disciples, free to love as he loves. And that’s the real call for each of us: to love as Jesus loves, so we can be his agents of healing and reconciliation in this world.
You see, the call to renunciation and sacrifice is actually a gift. Before Jesus tells the rich man in today’s gospel to go sell all his possessions,to give them to the poor, and only then to come and follow him, Jesus looks at the man and loves him. It’s out of love that Jesus tells the man what he needs to do in order to be free to follow Jesus as a disciple. Out of abundant divine love he gives this man the key to his own spiritual freedom.
“What do I need to do to fill this black hole?” the rich man asks. “I follow the law, I do all the right things, yet still I feel this emptiness. What’s missing?” Out of love Jesus tells the man, “You lack one thing. One thing that keeps you from being free to love as I love.” And he tells the man what it is. He tells the man what is binding him, what he needs to let go of, before the empty space in his heart can embrace God’s love and grace.
In the tradition of the Sufi Muslim’s, a story is told of two monks, who while traveling together come upon the humble abode of a poor farmer. The farmer has only one possession, his much beloved goat. As the story goes, the farmer was very proud to share his goat’s milk with his guests. Then when it was time for the monks to leave, the younger monk said to his companion, “Will you not pray a blessing on this generous householder?” And the older monk prayed, “May his goat die.”
The moral of the story, the Sufi’s teach, is that the man’s attachment to his goat was blocking him from being fully free, and so from enlightenment.
Jesus comes to us in the word of God, “living and active” as Paul calls it, to free us from everything that enslaves us. He comes to free us from inequality, insecurity, and injustice; from disordered attachments, arrogance, and ambition; from grudges, greed and pride; from disease despair, and death.
Jesus comes to free us from, so we’ll be free to: Free to follow as his disciples, free to love as he loves, and free –finally— to continue his work of healing and reconciliation—of broken systems, of broken relationships, and of a sadly broken world.
Not everyone is called, as was the rich man in this morning’s gospel, to sell everything and give it to the poor before following Jesus. However we are all called to reflect carefully on our disordered attachments to money and possessions.
And we are all called to reflect carefully about how Jesus might fill in the blank if he were talking to us. What is it Jesus would say I need to renounce before I’m free enough to follow him? What am I too attached to, to be truly free to love as Jesus loves?
If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, our answers will cut us to the bone, whatever they are. That’s the piercing point of this word from Mark’s gospel that is “sharper than a two-edged sword.”
Left to our own devices with these places of un-freedom, we would be hopelessly lost. But we haven’t been left to our own devices. For God all things are possible, and we have Jesus, the Divine Love incarnate, who “sympathizes with our weaknesses” and longs with all of his heart to set us free—free to follow where he leads, and free to love as he loves.
Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, You call us to follow your Son, as agents of healing and reconciliation in his name. Free us from all that enslaves us, and heal us of all that wounds us; that we may desire nothing so much as to love and be loved by you, and to love others as you love us. Amen.