sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23B, October 14, 2018
Last week we heard Jesus’ strong words about divorce. And I said that I wished I could preach about a dozen sermons, and that if I missed anything important, or if anyone wished I had gone somewhere else with it, I hoped for further conversation. I’m really glad I said this, because honestly, last week I committed an act of homiletical malpractice: I didn’t adequately address the most challenging piece of Scripture we heard.
As I stepped into the pulpit, I still didn’t really like my opening paragraphs, but I hadn’t put my finger on why. In reality, I had made excuses all week for not spending more time with my sermon. Had I engaged in some amount of silence last week, God might have shown me that I oversimplified when I referred to divorce as sinful in general. I had said nothing about divorces that happen, for instance, because of abuse. And in my male privilege, I neglected to mention the fact that for centuries, male preachers have used Jesus’ words to lay guilt trips on women who won’t remain subservient to mean and violent men.
So let me be clear, first of all: to leave an abuser is not sinful. It is a painful and responsible choice. The situation itself is sinful in that it falls short of how God would have us love one another … but it is by no means guilt-incurring. On the contrary! When you leave someone who is hurting you, God leaves with you.
You know, most of the time I don’t even refer to specific behaviors as “sins” or “not-sins.” I don’t think that’s a helpful dichotomy. Rather, “sin” is a state of being, a situation we find ourselves in when our actions prevent us from living in loving relationship with our neighbors. This is precisely what Jesus rescues us from, so that we can live in love again.
But sometimes we don’t even know we need to be rescued, as is the case with the man who approaches Jesus in today’s gospel reading. His problem is not that he is abusive or malevolent: it is that he is overconfident. He thinks he’s really winning at this life thing. In his mind there’s one thing left: eternal life, or, as Jesus calls it, the Kingdom of God. He wants to achieve his salvation and then feel secure in having obtained it.
And there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. He is a purpose-driven believer who has his best life now. This is his time. All he needs is that one key to perfection—which Jesus must certainly be able to provide for him.
“Good teacher,” he begins, kneeling in reverence before the master rabbi, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now, for just a moment, let’s pause the recording. I want to tell a very brief story of my own. Early in our marriage, Christy and I wanted to buy a house, but we lacked the savings to make a down payment. And then, at just the right moment, my grandmother died and left us $12,000. And we had what we needed.
What did I have to do to inherit that down payment?
Yeah, that’s what I thought. I’m starting to think that the man might be missing the point. Furthermore, it’s not like we actually needed a house; we just wanted one. Was God in that process? I refuse to claim certainty.
OK, hit the play button again. Jesus answers the man’s question with a question: “Why do you call me good?” It’s like, hey, buddy, stop for a moment and wonder. What makes me good? What makes you good? What’s the source of all this goodness?
Yet the man doesn’t stop to wonder; he plows onward, eager to share that he has perfected the art of following the law! He has never done anything wrong—and maybe he’s not just kidding himself. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is, indeed, a very earnest, very good man, not like the people Amos excoriates, the people who are intentionally trampling the poor. This man is one of the good rich people. They do exist … right?
I don’t think it occurred to this man once that he might go away from Jesus grieving. Indeed, I think that his privileged position taught him that you can achieve anything you put your mind to.
Jesus replies: “You lack one thing: sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
I’m going to pause the recording again and tell you about a dream I once had. I was with a group of people under a gigantic, permeable dome. We all knew that beyond the dome was heaven. We watched as a man and a woman, a married couple, pondered this fact. Then the woman suddenly took off into the air and flew, shooting up joyfully and puncturing the dome, which sealed again behind her. Her husband stood on the ground and watched. And he turned away, grieving, because he was too scared to follow her.
Meanwhile the rest of us were eager to fly after her, and we knew that we could. But there was just one thing: we had in our midst a gigantic machine of some kind, and we couldn’t imagine leaving it behind. So we tried to lift the machine and fly with it beyond the dome. But even with all of us working together, we couldn’t lift it more than a couple inches off the ground. So we resigned ourselves to staying down below, because we weren’t going anywhere without our machine.
Both in Jesus’ time and today, it’s the same situation: we are addicted to our possessions. We might say and believe that our possessions aren’t what counts, but what if we were given a distinct opportunity to put our money where our mouths are?
That’s what happens to this man in Jesus’ presence. For all his earnest and self-confident kindliness, he is called up short. In the Kingdom of God, having wealth holds us back. Period.
We all want to “get it right,” just like this rich man did. What if we can’t get it right?
What if we cannot help ourselves, but instead must become helpless? What if we cannot receive unless we are first empty?
What if even a good, steady job that benefits the world can’t get us closer to God, but unemployment can?
What if our generosity can’t earn us points in “the good place,” but our poverty blesses us?
What if our carefully managed plans for a safe life just lull us into a false sense of security? What if being in danger is actually better for our spiritual growth?
What if the woman who leaves an abusive man and steps out into uncertainty is surrounded by angels, while the couple who have a good, untroubled marriage for decades are in danger of losing their souls?
What if such a realization drives us into a form of grief that is actually the first step toward benefiting from our salvation?
See, here’s the thing: Jesus makes clear in the gospels that God sides with the unemployed, the homeless, the hungry, the lonely, and the abused … over against the rest of us. God loves us all, to be sure, but God doesn’t love our possessions, or our security, or our confidence. “Believe in yourself” is not the gospel and often runs contrary to it. When things are going well for us, we are so easily led into the false belief that we are in control. It’s not until we come to understand ourselves as poverty-stricken—voluntarily or otherwise—that we can begin to receive God’s love.
I’m telling you this with great trepidation. I walk away from this gospel passage grieving, because I have many possessions. And I wonder what it would take for me to lose all faith in their saving power.
Oh, the word of God is indeed “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow”! God’s judgment of the folly of our lives is real, and it will cause us to grieve.
Jesus’ disciples are shocked. It’s as if, for one fleeting moment, they actually understand the gospel. When we talk about the baptized life, we’re talking about an alternative lifestyle, a lifestyle that stands in stark contrast to that of, for instance, American culture, because it is both totally free and costs us everything.
This week I’ve been reading The Cost of Discipleship by Lutheran pastor and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He writes about Levi the tax collector, a man with many possessions who did indeed follow Jesus:
At the call, Levi leaves all that he has … not because he thinks that he might be doing something worthwhile, but simply for the sake of the call … The disciple simply burns his boats and goes ahead … The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus).
You may now be saying, “Well, it’s not like it makes sense for all of us to sell everything we have”! I’m not saying that. But what if we all took just one step toward beginning to understand that we don’t actually own anything—that we have no right to keep any particular possession?
What if we practiced giving ourselves away?