Choosing grace, finding blessing

This is my sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, preached at St. Stephen’s in Millburn on October 10, 2021. The lectionary is found here. We read the reading from Job, Psalm 22, and the Gospel.

When I read today’s Gospel, I can almost hear the “rich young man,” as we have come to identify the man in this story, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”  It wouldn’t surprise me if these words, the first verse of today’s psalm, are not some of, if not the, most prayed words these past many months.  In times of upheaval and fear, such as during a global pandemic, they are as honest a reflection of how many feel as can be. In times of hopelessness and despair, such as the ongoing reality of violent racial injustice in this country, they are as apt a description of the extraordinary fatigue and frustration experienced by so many as can be.  In times of destruction and distress, such as when we are faced with the reality of climate change and extreme weather events such as floods, they describe our feelings of helplessness. In times of worry and awareness of anticipated loss, such as that which I imagine the man who approached Jesus felt, they can be an almost reflexive reaction to hearing a truth we do not want to hear. 

This man, presumably a good and faithful Jew, based on Jesus’ initial response of reiterating the Ten Commandments, comes to Jesus with a question for which I would guess many of us would want the answer:  How can I be sure that I am living my life in a way that pleases God?  Another way of asking is: Am I living in the right way to have God’s eternal blessing? 

Jesus tells the man quite clearly that what he is doing is not all that God would have him do.  On the one hand, the man knows and is following the letter of the law, abiding by the Ten Commandments. But that is not enough.  To live as God would have us live, we must understand that the Ten Commandments are to be understood as the basic criteria for how we live in community. To live into that spirit of the law, we must love with all that we are and all that we have, living as Jesus lives, loving as Jesus does.

Imagine hearing Jesus give this answer in response to your question about you and your life.  How would it feel to hear that your good intentions and consistency in following the rules, doing the right thing, is not quite enough?  Would you be surprised?  Would you feel frustrated? Would you wonder where you’d gone wrong or why you’d even bothered?  Would you question if the rules had been changed in the middle of the game? Would you feel as if God let you down, left you hanging, stopped listening to you? 

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you’re in good company. If you close your eyes, can you see the multitudes of God’s beloved who are right there with you?  This Gospel reminds us that our human inclination to confuse material blessings and earthly success with God’s blessing is not getting us to where we deeply desire to be, to who we deeply desire to be.  God’s blessing is not in our material riches because God’s love is not transactional.  God’s blessing is not in our earthly success but in our relationships.  The problem isn’t the riches or the earthly success.  The problem is when those things become more important to us than relationship with God.  When material riches and earthly successes are what we aspire to most, they obscure our ability to see the abundance of grace and blessing that is ours no matter our riches or abundance.  We move deeper into the heart of God when we use the gifts we are given, including those that enable us to gather riches and to have earthly success to live into God’s dream for the world. 

When we hold material riches and earthly successes less tightly, we open ourselves to listening more deeply to Jesus.  We invite God’s Holy Spirit to live and more within us in ways that use what we have let go of to expand our awareness of the abundance of God’s blessing. We learn that this has absolutely nothing to do with money or big houses or fancy cars and everything to do with the simple, yet profound grace that is only found in remembering who and whose we are. 

The parable in this Gospel is not about a camel and a needle and heaven is not a heavily guarded place with a very small door, though it is an eternal way of being which our attachment to earthly riches and understandings of success prevent us from living. When we remember that, the parable begins to make sense as a response to the man’s question and confusion. We experience the fullness of God’s blessing when we give in to God’s grace, remember that grace is not in things or traditional ideas of success, but in the relationships we cultivate with each other, nourished by our relationship with God.  Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon described it this way:

…just as you can’t stuff a camel through an opening designed to take only a thread, so you can’t get someone who has a great, fat successful life to volunteer to go through the narrow eye of lastness and death…Jesus’ plan of salvation works only with the last, the least, the little, and the dead; the living, the great, the success, the found, and the first imply will not consent to the radical slimming down that Jesus, the Needle of God, calls for if he is to pull them through into the kingdom.  (The Parables of Judgement, p.47)

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? said it a bit more  succinctly:

            The richer we have become spiritually, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually…We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. (p.181)

God has not abandoned or forsaken the young man, just has God has not forsaken or abandon us.  Global pandemic, violent racial injustice, climate change and flood do nothing to change the nature of God, which is love for all of us through all time and through all things.  It is our humanness, which includes that tricky gift of free will, that brings us to places in which we very well may feel abandoned or forsaken. We work too hard to attain earthly riches and achieve our own vision of success. We use too much of our energy trying to hold onto those things, so that they become the end all and be all. We become so worried that we will lose these things that we cannot look beyond them.  We lose sight of Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope.

There good news, the best news, is that we get to choose to live differently, to love differently.  We get to choose to put people and their needs, our call to live in loving, caring community, ahead of our needs to achieve and to hold on to earthly riches and our own ideas of success.  We get to choose to be a part of creating the beloved community that ensures that all people have what they need to not survive, but to thrive, to live fully into who God created them to be. We get to choose, I’d go so far as to say we should choose – and “should” is not a word I use often or lightly – to ask the kind of hard questions the man asks Jesus and to listen for the answers, as hard as they may be to hear.  It is then that we will be able to see grace and experience the blessing which is found in the simplest and most basic of places: in loving relationship with each other and with God.