Month: October 2012

Jesus looked at him and loved him …

A sermon at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Church Ossining, New York Oct. 14, 2012
The Gospel today presents a fascinating story—a man runs up and kneels before Jesus. Jesus invites him to follow him. The man goes away crestfallen. The parts in between present a challenge to me as a preacher.

wealth_management

First off, there is quite a bit about money in here, and we know it’s always a losing proposition to talk about money, especially in church. But my real problem is that there are two usual approaches that are taken with Jesus’ challenge to this young man, and neither is satisfactory: one approach is to explain away the hardness of Jesus’ words “sell everything you own and give it to the poor” and make it into something more palatable and less like the Gospel and the other is to push a dramatic vision of discipleship that just is not relevant to how people live their lives. But the Gospel, particularly this Gospel is relevant to how we live our lives, as individuals and as Christian congregations.

In this conversation, Jesus looked at this man and he loved him. The lesson we read makes a point of this. Frequently the Gospel does not attribute motives or feelings to Jesus or others. Here, it is quite clear, Jesus is not trying to catch this guy out, or reveal his hypocrisy or anything else—he loved him. What follows is an invitation: give up what you have and follow me. It is not that far off from what Jesus said to Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee when he saw them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee: “follow me.” Of course, what they left behind was their fishing nets and long hard days of physical labor, while this young man was told to leave behind a substantial fortune. But the invitation was the same. The man was shocked and crestfallen because he had asked a straightforward question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and he had in mind that he would get a straightforward answer. And he expected that that answer would be within parameters that he could expect and which he could adjust his life to fit.

Jesus’ answer was straightforward enough, but it was way outside the man’s expectations. The young man hadn’t asked how to be a hero, or an apostle or a martyr; he just wanted to know what to do to inherit eternal life. Until you think about it, that seems like a fairly small thing, like having good teeth and staying out of jail; just part of a properly run life.

But eternal life begins now, and with Jesus it requires things we don’t expect, and perhaps haven’t budgeted for. We certainly see it among Jesus’ disciples, like when Peter realizes that Jesus is expecting to suffer and be crucified as the result of his ministry. Peter is shocked and tries to talk Jesus out of it—“Get behind me Satan!” is Jesus’ response. Following Jesus has turns in the path that we don’t necessarily expect, and being faithful requires us to stay with him when those turns become difficult.

As an illustration let’s look into these questions of money and goods which come up in today’s Gospel. I’m not even going to try to explain about camels and needles. In our own lives we expect to get along and to prosper as long as we do our share. And in this way we have a lot in common with the man who approached Jesus. And Jesus, of course, may have something in store for us, that we are not expecting, just as happened with that man. Our expectations get wrapped up in what we expect money to do for us, or likewise how a particular shape of our material well-being is a necessity for life. That is the tragedy of this man, this prospective disciple. Jesus presents an opportunity to look at this differently.
Eternal life is on the one hand more secure than the prosperity of this world, but on the other hand it requires us to let loose of our expectations of security and prosperity.

The future of Christianity in the next hundred years will expand and open before us, and it is not likely to be the same as the last two hundred years. There is no longer a presumption in this country that people ought to attend church or that they ought to be Christians. As Christians, we can no longer rely on institutional inertia to keep church services going to have the faith passed down to the next generation. It is only in following Jesus on his road into the unknown future that we can inherit eternal life.

So what does he require? That we sell everything? Well, perhaps more…perhaps our expectations of what church means, and what we get from that may be turned upside down. We gather as a community of Thanksgiving—thanksgiving for this Jesus whose generosity in giving himself models for us how our life can be filled with generosity and thanksgiving. The question of money and possessions is not a question of anxiety or fear with Jesus, rather what we have is an opportunity to live lives of generosity and thanksgiving, both individually and corporately.

Finding what Jesus is calling us to is not a matter of reading a few verses of scripture or a 10-minute sermon. It is not a matter of literally copying what Peter, Andrew, James, or John or this rich young man was told to do. It is a matter of courageously accepting the call to eternal life and the real difficulties of discerning what of our expectations to sacrifice, so that we can confidently live that life of thanksgiving that Jesus has for all those who he loves.

“Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

Advertisements

19th Sunday after Pentecost/St. Francis October 6, 2012

St. Paul’s on the Hill and Trinity Church, Ossining, NY

To test Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This is a perfectly appropriate translation, though if you read it “Is it permitted for a man to cut loose his woman?” –it would be just as accurate. These guys were testing what sort of Rabbi, what sort of interpreter of the law, Jesus was. They want to know what sort of rights a person has, (please understand, in this context person should be understood as man, since women in those days had few rights and no status), and how far they should be exercised. Jesus is not so impressed with this—it’s a question of law? What does the law say?—look at the writings of Moses. So when they quote the law back to him, they seem to want more. Jesus’ response was, basically, “Ok, that’s the law; now let’s talk about marriage, guys.” The two shall become one flesh, an organic whole. Marriage is about making that work, the two together, not about figuring out the rights of one over against the other.

A lot of times when Jesus is in conflict with people, it is over similar issues—to oversimplify to make the point: people want to figure out how to get into heaven while continuing to be as selfish as possible. Everybody’s a jailhouse lawyer, proving that somehow God is going to have to reward them, or at least forgive them, so they can hold on to as much comfort as they want. Last week, Jesus got mad at John and the disciples; this week he’s pretty harsh with both the Pharisees and his own disciples—the way that I read it is that we don’t have any claim on God, and if we look to some set of rules to make us safe, we will always come up short of our real obligations to God and our neighbor.

Thekla

Thekla

The disciples were trying to keep the kids away—keep them from bothering Jesus and disturbing the serious business of the grownups… What serious business? Jesus was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Jesus’ serious business is the kingdom of God—and it is the children…not the adults, some of whom think they have mastered the rules and can game the Kingdom … who embody the Kingdom.

All of this is in keeping with a beloved feast we are celebrating today: the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, which we observe through the blessing of the animals.

Of all the people of the middle ages, Francis of Assisi was the most concerned with Jesus. His preaching and the preaching of his followers, the Franciscans, centered on stories and images of Jesus. This was quite a contrast both from the learned and abstract doctrinal teaching of the universities and moralistic preaching of most parish clergy at the time. Francis saw many of the same things that Jesus did: the manipulation of rules and teaching by those with some wealth or authority for the sake of their own comfort, accompanied by the miserable suffering of the poor.

He embraced poverty – Lady Poverty, he called her, calling to mind the troubadour and courtly love traditions of his time. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, and as he embraced poverty and came into conflict with his father, he appeared in the public square before the Bishop of Assisi and a gathered crowd, and he removed all of his rich clothing, and left it there, walking out of the square naked.

Like Jesus, Francis was not particularly impressed by people who used their advantages to make themselves comfortable. Since most people are that way sometimes, Francis sometimes found it necessary to find a better audience. Very early in the time that Francis started his ministry of preaching, he saw a huge flock of birds in a tree, and he spoke to them in their simplicity, so that people might learn to be so simple:

“My little sisters the birds, ye owe much to God, your Creator, and ye ought to sing his praise at all times and in all places, because he has given you liberty to fly about into all places; and though ye neither spin nor sew, he has given you a twofold and a threefold clothing for yourselves and for your offspring. Two of all your species he sent into the Ark with Noah that you might not be lost to the world; besides which, he feeds you, though ye neither sow nor reap. He has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests; so that your Creator loves you much, having thus favoured you with such bounties. Beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praise to God.”

If the birds can be grateful, so should we. There is so much that we have been given: the gift of reason and of human love; of enough to eat, and the ability to give to others. Some of us have been blessed with the companionship of animals, creatures with personalities who give and receive affection. They are God’s creatures who bless us with their presence.

Let us give thanks to God for the blessing of their simplicity and their vitality. A little later we will have a blessing of the animals, we pray for all animals to be well treated and well taken care of. We also pray for those who care for animals, that they may be blessed and be able to give good care to them. Please also remember the animals who have died and the families that have lost them—as we lost our bulldog, Thekla, a few weeks ago. The place of such an animal in the life of a family or community is particularly noticed when they are gone. Let us be grateful to God for all these lives among us.