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The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs, Deacon and Director for Spiritual Formation, St. Martin’s Church.
Two wrenching images stand out in today’s Gospel lesson. The first is of a young man grieving; trudging away as if weighted down by everything he owns—realizing for the first time the what the high cost is of following Jesus. The second image is that of Peter—aghast, perplexed, standing with his empty palms outstretched to Jesus, complaining, “Look, we have left everything and followed you”! Imagine all the disciples clustered together behind him, no money, bag or possessions between them—Breathlessly asking, “Then who can be saved?” They must feel, even if only for a millisecond, like twelve victims of a massive theological bait-and-switch.
But as is typical with Jesus, what seems at first blush to be an overwhelming challenge is really an invitation. He has taken the original question, about how to inherit eternal life, and transformed it instead into a description of the Kingdom—the Reign of God. But Jesus hasn’t so much evaded the man’s question as he has tried to shift his perspective.
We have a clue to Jesus’ objective at the very beginning of this encounter. The man kneels, paying homage, and calls him, “Good Teacher”. Jesus gently rebukes him, pointing the man’s attention away from himself and toward God: “No one is good but God alone.” It is this statement that sums up everything that follows.
Jesus asks the man about his knowledge of the Law, by reciting the Commandments. Note, however, that he names only six of them, not all ten.The ones he cites are the LAST six—the ones that have to do with relationships of people with each other. The four Commandments that Jesus has left out of his list are the ones that focus on peoples’ relationship with God:
You shall have no other gods;
You shall not worship idols;
You shall not take God’s name in vain;
You shall keep the Sabbath holy.
These four are the ones that should align our priorities. When that alignment happens, the other six Commandments fall into place. It’s like Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “You shall love the lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.” God first, neighbor next; everything that comes from this is like a tree which grows from a single fundamental nourishing root; God alone.
And Jesus’ questioner thought he was doing everything right—He had kept Jesus’ list of Commandments all of his life. He was a good man. But Jesus needed him to internalize the fact that unless he had God as his focus, his good intentions would ultimately fall to shreds.
There was One Thing lacking—one thing that was the thread weaving through it all; a realignment of his priorities. And so Jesus tells the man to rectify his focus—to shift it back to God: “…go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” And the man leaves, grief-stricken, because he has many possessions.
The common perception is that the man is devastated because he has decided that he won’t be able to follow Jesus. But what if it is because he’s decided he WILL follow Jesus, only now he knows what it will cost him?
He realizes he’s got to let go. Letting go of our idols, by definition, requires loss. It also requires Trust. Trust that, though we are leaving something cherished behind—money, status, pride, resentment, anger (and yes, it IS possible to cherish and idolize our anger and resentment)–that it will be okay. That somehow, the loss will be worth it. Somehow.
But it’s hard. And Jesus knows that. Which is why, “looking at him, Jesus loved him”. He knew that what he was asking for was a leap of faith into the arms of God. He knew that, human frailty being what it is, God’s children tend to hold tightly to things. Prying those fingers loose is some kind of spiritual heavy lifting.
Jesus said, ‘…how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” He uses the ludicrous image of camels in tiny spaces to illustrate the difficulty—Scholars have tried to explain it away and make it somehow more palatable. But the message is clear: Letting go is a tight squeeze. But it’s vitally necessary for our wholeness as human beings and as beloved children of God.
We know from the first months of life the importance of holding on to something. Babies have a grip reflex—where you can gently press your finger into a baby’s hand and he will automatically grab on tight– That reflex is so strong that babies can sometimes hold their own body weight. We need to know how to pick things up and move them from place to place. We need to know how to hold a spoon, or a pencil, or take someone’s hand. But the reflex itself only lasts three or four months into a baby’s development, until she begins to close and open her hands voluntarily. So even our developmental DNA knows that proper motor skills involve not just holding tightly, but letting go. It’s the only way to make progress. You can’t just keep carrying along everything you pick up without leaving some stuff behind as you discern what you need and what you don’t. And if you’re loaded down with a lot of junk, how can you grasp what is really important when you find it?
Our spiritual and emotional selves can learn a lot from our physical selves. God’s Kingdom isn’t about staying stuck and weighed down. And that is what happens if we continually hold tightly to an ideal of perfection and achievement and acquisition that we can never attain because the bar of worldly expectations will always be set higher than we can reach.
You may have heard of what John D. Rockefeller said to someone who asked how much money is enough. He responded, “Just a little bit more.”
But it’s not just about money that Jesus was speaking. The idea of letting go also pertains to the misconception that life should be perfect and painless and effortless, if only we do it right. Whatever ‘it’ is.
We do our best. We work, we save, we exercise, we eat our fruits and vegetables, we follow the rules. And still jobs are lost, health fails, loved ones die, tragedies and natural disasters wreak havoc.
Jesus offers the rewards of the Kingdom in this age, but it is not what contemporary culture—our own or that of the first century—would expect. Jesus warns us to expect that things won’t be perfect—that the Kingdom entails “persecutions”. There are battles to be fought and suffering to be encountered. This is the counterintuitive Kingdom that Jesus describes. It asks us to give up so that we can gain even more.
But what is it that we gain? This is not some prosperity Gospel, which falsely promises that giving your money away is going to yield a bountiful financial return. This is wrongheaded and dangerous teaching.
No; when Jesus says that we will gain a hundredfold brothers, sisters, and fields, he speaks of the brothers and sisters in Christ that we are called to serve, in fields of generosity, justice, and compassion. And the joy that it brings is not the same as superficial happiness. Joy is God-rooted—deeper, richer, more eternal, and most often seasoned with deep knowledge of pain and struggle.
One of my earliest memories is of my own baptism. It may have been only a dream, but I remember myself as an indignantly squalling freshly-splashed infant. Mostly , though, I remembered love: The love of my new church family as I was paraded up the aisle of my little church. I remember being held; held in strong arms. Safe, secure. I myself held nothing; instead, I was held, and I trusted those arms.
This morning we will baptize Ryn Mulholland. We will vow that by our prayers and witness we will help her to grow into the full stature of Christ. What will that look like? What will we teach Ryn about the Kingdom of God?
We will teach her that being a Christian is countercultural. Being a Christian invites her to hold lightly, not tightly, to the superficial criteria of success that our culture offers. Being a Christian asks that she move through this world, not fearful of scarcity but reveling joyously in the abundance and wholeness of a life lived securely in God’s embrace. We will teach her that the Kingdom is an enormous family—hundredfold brothers and sisters who love her. We will teach her that the Kingdom doesn’t mean that life is easy.
The world is a scary place sometimes. Pets die, friends move away, knees are skinned and bones get broken, but we, the whole Christian family, are with her all the way, through seasons of despair as well as joy, holding her in prayer and love.
We will teach her that seeing the world through the eyes of the Kingdom means seeing how she can hold others through Christlike compassion and service. Most of all we will teach her the countercultural lesson that there is freedom in letting go, freedom in trusting God, and in living faithfully into the knowledge that, for God, all things are possible.