Sunday, October 15, 2006

Nineteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.

When we read a story like the one in today’s Gospel lesson, it is natural for us to think about how we would feel in that same situation. The words of Jesus seem rather harsh. What would we do if they were spoken to us personally? Would we respond like the rich young ruler, hanging our head in sadness as we walk away? Or perhaps we might respond like the disciples, perplexed with questions. Though they were astounded by Jesus’ teaching, they did not walk away. They stayed and asked Jesus what He meant. They sought to better understand this hard teaching. They heard the Gospel message that is found in this story. The rich young ruler never heard the good news because he walked away.

When we are studying these stories, we look to the faithful as examples of the lessons learned. A frequent characteristic of those we call “saints” is that they have left everything to follow Jesus Christ. Mother Theresa comes to mind as someone who set aside the world, their wealth and their lives to freely serve God. Over the millennia there have been many others, some of whom remained anonymous but were as selfless and sacrificial as Christ is calling this young man to be.

Yet, it is a hard teaching. Those of us with wealth, even if it does not seem like wealth, would find it most difficult to give up our whole world to wander in the desert with Jesus. We have people who are counting on us. We have families that need to eat. We have people whom we love that love us too. They don’t just love us for our stuff; they would probably support us if we really felt the need to give up our earthly possessions for God. However, how could we walk away from those relationships? What about those jobs that we do? Though there are many people who would quit their jobs at the drop of a hat, there are many who consider their jobs a vocation – a calling from God. How can we walk away?

October 15th is the Feast day in honor of St. Teresa of Avila. Teresa was born in a time of great upheaval in the world. A few years before, Christopher Columbus found the new world and adventurers were traveling to distant lands in search of wealth and fame. A few years later, Martin Luther fought against the mammon-centered focus of the Church which was selling indulgences to build a bigger and more ornate building in Rome.

Even the Carmelite nunnery, in which she had committed her life to serving God, sought wealth above piety. As a matter of fact, the nuns were known to dress in finery to entertain visitors in the parlor of the convent. Teresa taught lessons on prayer for money to aid the financial position of the house. It was thought that wealth bred respect, so the nuns sought wealth to earn the respect of the community. The nuns were even sent out into the world to live among the people – not to serve, but in search of gain for the order.

Teresa was not a particularly righteous or “saintly” woman. As a matter of fact, she is as known for her ability to create trouble as she is for piety. Even in prayer, Teresa the mystic provided fodder for her detractors. At a very young age, she convinced her brother to leave home with her to go be beheaded by the Moors. She was charming and well liked. She considered her greatest vice her enjoyment of her friends. She joined the Carmelite order not because she was particularly called to serve God, but because it seemed like the easier path for her to take. As she grew older she focused her life more on God and her prayer life developed into something misunderstood by many as being a gift of the devil. Though she went out into the world reforming the Carmelite order, she also retreated into herself where she found great comfort in the presence of God.

She succeeded in creating a reform movement, establishing houses for nuns that centered on God rather than power, position or wealth. It was a simple life, living strictly in the monastery. They identified with the poor by going shoeless. Though money was not the goal the sisters worked hard to earn enough to support the community and their mission to serve Christ in the world. Teresa is not the best example of a saint who has turned their back on everything worldly for the sake of God and the Gospel. There was no sudden conversion or immediate renunciation of her worldly life. She even sought the convent as an escape rather than a call. But she came around, slowly but surely. She learned to pray and to live in God’s presence. She learned to give up the things that keep us from God. St. Teresa once said, “God treats his friends terribly, though he does them no wrong in this, since he treated his Son in the same way.”

On the surface, today’s Gospel story seems to be about a man who honors and respects Jesus and His teachings. Mark tells us that he ran up to Jesus, knelt before Him and called Him “Good teacher.” This is little more than flattery spoken by someone who is looking to have Jesus justify the life he was living. The young man is said to be quite wealthy. It is possible that he was even part of the ruling class – perhaps even a Pharisee. He wanted Jesus to tell him what he needed to do to earn a place in heaven.

Jesus’ initial answer was uplifting to the young man. Jesus quoted the Decalogue, listing the laws that involved relationships between human beings. The man could easily respond that he has never killed, cheated, stolen, lied or coveted and he honored his parents. “Teacher, all these things have I observed from my youth.” He is a good man, good according to the expectations of the world around him. I can almost hear Jesus’ sigh; I hear it every time I think of myself as a good person. I too can say that I have lived up to the words of the law. I’m fairly generous with the resources I have and I try to do kindnesses for my neighbors.

“And Jesus looking upon him loved him.” We aren’t much different than the rich young ruler. We want to know what we have to do to earn the kingdom of heaven. We respond to Jesus’ answer in the passage with a sigh of relief. It should be easy for us to earn heaven because we are generally good people. Murder, theft, adultery don’t tend to be part of our daily lifestyle. We even try to bring our good life before the Good Teacher with humbleness and respect. “I have done all these things.” Jesus looks upon us with love.

Yet, in love He responds with a greater expectation. “One thing you lack,” He continues. Even though we do everything right and are even quite generous with our resources, we still have something in our life that is more important. We aren’t willing to give it all up for God. We aren’t willing to let go of our old life and follow Christ without burdens and baggage. For this rich young ruler, the burden was wealth. He became quite sad when Jesus told him that he had to sell everything, give it to the poor and then follow. He walked away because Jesus expected too much.

When Jesus says, “one thing you lack” we are brought face to face with the truth that we too have our failings that separate us from God. Even the most pious or righteous person can’t reach God’s expectations. That’s why we need Him. I wonder if the response would have been different if Jesus had said, “Give half your stuff to the poor.” The man would then have still had enough to survive in the world without relying on the charity of others. He would have had a place to hang his hat. He would have had finances to support the ministry he may have been willing to do. Jesus said, “Get rid of it all.” The young man wanted to know what he had to do to earn what God was giving for free, so Jesus made the payment beyond the young man’s ability to pay.

What Jesus was trying to get across to the young man and those who overheard the conversation is that it is not about what we can do to earn our place in the kingdom, but rather what God can do and what God has done. In the Old Testament lesson, Amos calls the people to live in a relationship with God. He shows them their faults and their frailties. He points out their injustices. Most of all, he shows them that they are no longer in a relationship with their Creator. They have turned away from Him. He was calling them to live a life of justice and peace, but that life was too hard. They focused on their wealth, and the keeping of their wealth. Amos told them to seek something better – the Lord. It might seem like a burden to turn around and follow, but it is there that true blessings are found.

Sometimes what God speaks to us is very hard. Yet, God’s word always comes with a message of Good News. The writer of Hebrews tells us that “the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart. Yet, He never brings trial without offering healing. We hear words like those of Jesus and we are cut to the heart. We know that we hold other things in our lives higher than the Lord. We know that we are like Teresa, having some frailty that keeps us from a perfect relationship with God.

Jesus’ answer to the rich young ruler seems so wrong – to require him to give up everything is beyond extreme. Yet, in this very act the man would have found something even greater. Perhaps one day he did. We might never know. We can rest in the hope that as we go through life, all too often focused on all the wrong things, we might truly understand the gift God has given by grace through His Son Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, our wrong focus also brings upon us difficult times. When we do not keep our eyes on God and His kingdom, we suffer the consequences of being away from His presence. Like the people to whom Amos was speaking, we suffer the wrath of God. If we trample the poor, we are trampled. If we cheat and lie and steal we find ourselves outside the grace of God. However, when we seek God, we will know His grace.

The words that Jesus spoke to the rich young ruler were hard, even harsh. Yet, he turned around and walked away much too quickly. The disciples heard the same words, but though they were confused and upset by the lesson, they did not walk away. They talked to Jesus about it. They wondered how it could be. They wondered, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answered with the most difficult word for us to hear. The truth is that no one can be saved by their own goodness or good works. But then Jesus answered with the Gospel, “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.” Now this is good news. When we ask what we have to do to earn this gift, the cost is always beyond our ability to give. How will we respond? Will we respond with sadness and turning away from God or will we truly be humbled by His amazing grace?

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