Sunday, October 10, 2021

20th Pentecost, 2021-B: True relationship

 Lectionary: Job 23:1-9; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

En el nombre del Dios, que es trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

I had a friend who once told me that they were wealthy because God trusted them above others to manage the wealth they were given. Not everyone was wealthy, they said, because not everyone could be trusted in that way.

I’ll never forget that conversation because of the look on their face and the tone of their voice. They were kindly but patronizingly informing me that I wasn’t rich because I wasn’t among those whom God could trust in that way.

I remember feeling so sad as I looked at the face of this person, whom I loved dearly, recognizing that they were completely clueless of their hubris. Their implicit insult hurt me, but not nearly as much as the lost-ness of their soul did.

Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart once said, in order for the graciousness of God to be upon us, we must detach from all else and turn our attention to God. Granted, that’s hard to do.

We live in a world that constantly tells us what we should want: to be happy, beautiful, successful, and adored. We live in a world where “true love” is found buffet-style on reality TV, where body plastic has become the norm, where prized positions are won by the most manipulative and deceitful, and where personal value is calculated by the number of followers one has on social media or the heftiness of one’s bank account.

The message is: more is better. More stuff. More clout. More blessing. It’s an addiction in its truest form, and it isn’t so different for the rich man in today’s gospel story.

A faithful believer, the rich man asks an honest question of Jesus – how can I be sure I will inherit eternal life? Jesus answers like a rabbi would: ‘You know the commandments… don’t murder or commit adultery… don’t steal or bear false witness… don’t defraud… and honor your father and mother.'

Isn’t that an interesting group of six of the ten commandments Jesus chose to highlight? So, who can tell me… what number was the “thou shalt not defraud” commandment?

It wasn’t. Jesus interpreted the 10th commandment, “thou shalt not covet” for this rich man, who probably didn’t want much of what his neighbors had.

‘But I’ve kept these commandments from my youth,’ the rich man tells Jesus. I’ve lived a righteous life. You can see how blessed I am.

Jesus looks deeply, lovingly at this man and says to him. ‘Detach from your stuff – from the symbols of your happiness, the evidence of your blessing. Empty yourself and your life of all that distracts and separates you from true relationship with God and your neighbor, including your poor neighbor. Then come and follow me.’

Mark tells us that the man was shocked by what Jesus said, and that “he went away grieving” because he had a lot of stuff from which to detach.

It doesn’t say the man didn’t eventually do it, only that he left deeply saddened and distressed by what God had asked of him. I think most of us have this same kind of response when we get real about what God is asking from us… partly because God’s desire for us is so radically different from what the world teaches us to desire for ourselves; and partly because it’s just plain hard to detach.

After his encounter with the rich man, Jesus turns to his disciples and helps them detach from an inherited belief that distracts them from true relationship with God and neighbor: the notion that wealth is a blessing that indicates God’s approval and poverty is evidence of God’s disapproval. In fact, Jesus says, it’s harder, not easier, for a person with wealth to enter the kingdom of God.

This totally unhinges the disciples, who wonder… ‘if one whose life is clearly blessed by God can’t enter the kingdom of God…’ “Then who can?”

Peter responds like the rich man did. ‘But Jesus, we’ve done that. We’ve left our homes and our families to follow you. What else do we need to do?’

‘Don’t worry,’ Jesus assures them, ‘you’ll be rewarded for your faithfulness, in this life and eternally. But remember, it is God’s way, God’s will that is at work here so what God asks of you, and the reward you receive, may not be anything like what you’re expecting.

To conclude the story I began with at the beginning of this sermon: this couple lost all of their wealth during the Great Recession of 2008. They lost their jobs and their home. They had to share one car and one cell phone. It took some time, but the experience eventually freed them from the notion that they were especially blessed, enabling them to enter humbly into true relationships with others, and I would guess, with God too.

We, too, can unlearn what separates us from God and one another and live differently.

Whenever Jesus encountered a poor person, a hurting person, a hated person, he entered into real relationship with them – and in that relationship, they found healing and wholeness. We can, we must, do the same if we are to call ourselves followers of Jesus.

It’s a risky proposition in real life. When we see a beggar at a traffic light, do we roll up our windows and look away or hand them a dollar and a smile? When the Afghan refugees come to Webster Groves will we fear and resent them, or enter into real relationship with them?

The poor need money, of course. They need clothes, housing, food, a place to shower and go to the bathroom. But they also need to be in real relationship with people.

Being poor isolates people. Jesus told us there would be poor among us always, so our goal isn’t to eradicate poverty but to transform our relationship with the poor, to tear down the barriers that isolate them and welcome them into our community, into real relationship.

The result of that may be the eradication of poverty. Who knows? God knows.

In order to do that, however, we must also transform our relationship with the wealthy. Jesus showed us how to do that, by loving them the way Jesus loved the rich man in our gospel story. 

It is only in God, for whom nothing is impossible, that this can happen. We can’t do it, but we can take the opportunities God presents us and make space for God to do through us what the world says is impossible.

I close with the blessing used at the consecration of our bishop: 

May God bless us with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that we may seek truth boldly and love deep within our hearts. 

May God bless us with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people so that we may work tirelessly for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless us with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really can make a difference in this world so that we are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done. And the blessing of God the Almighty, the grace of Christ the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us and among us, now and always. Amen. 

Note: This blessing was written by Benedictine nun, Sister Ruth Marlene Fox, in 1985. I adapted it from the second person (you) to the third person (we/us).

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