October 11, 2009, The 19th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 11, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Year B, Proper 23
Amos 5:6-7, Ps. 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

Whenever I hear or read this passage of the Gospel I am shaken. I want to look for the loophole or the escape hatch. The obvious one is to say that, well, this command to sell all and give to the poor is for him specifically and not for me. But that delusion vanishes as I read further and here the words of Jesus saying how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. Suddenly, the story has a universal applicability. I am reminded once again of how diametrically opposed the vision of the kingdom of God is from the vision of the American Dream. I claim to follow Jesus and then realize yet again how enmeshed I am in the world about me. See, I understand myself to be like the rich young man, or perhaps somewhere between the man and the disciples who chime in that they’ve left everything. As I thought about what to say today in response to such a full and rich passage, two opposing pairs come to my mind: God’s love and challenging invitation and what is consecrated—our lives to God or our lives to the world.

Let’s look at the first one: God’s love and challenging invitation. The hope in the story that I hear is always in that phrase, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This rich young man is a decent man. He is honest, faithful, caring and sincere. He lives a good and upright life within the culture that is his. Jesus honors this. But the young man coming to Jesus signifies, at least to my mind, that even though he has lived this decent life he is hungry for more. He feels deep in his being it is not enough; there is something more, something deeper, something even more life giving. Jesus is where he sees this and so he runs up to him and prostrates himself—a rich man to whom others would bow himself bows at the feet of a wandering, disturbing man of a lower social strata. He wants to hear the Good News.

Before we hear the words that surely must have been hard to hear, Jesus looks with love, with compassion, on this earnest, decent person. His words are direct, but said with care: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Often we tend to hear these words as said with scorn or harsh judgment. Not so. Jesus, who is so keenly aware of the power of wealth and the chimera of security to lure us away from a focus on God and by extension our fellow human beings, is also aware of how fragile, how vulnerable we are. We are pulled by our obligations and responsibilities to provide for ourselves and those closest to us. If we choose a life that doesn’t seem to put us or our children on the path to upward mobility we are put down and criticized. We are in a tough spot.
Jesus though sees the promise underneath and gives it a challenging, but encouraging nudge. But most importantly he starts the whole encounter with a reminder that the unearned, unconditional love of God for us exists first. Then from that love we are invited to live into the challenging vision of the kingdom of God. All too often we hear it, either in our mind or from others, inverted: we must live up to the challenge successfully and then we will receive God’s love. As Jesus demonstrates, it is just the opposite. Love for us comes first; and when we can accept this, the challenge becomes less grievous and more joyful.

And this bring us to look at that second opposing pair I mentioned: the idea of what we consider consecrated.

There are several definitions of the word consecrate. In reading the Gospels and the vision Jesus lays out of the kingdom of God it seems that this definition is the operative one: set apart as sacred; dedicate solemnly to a sacred or religious purpose; make fit for religious use. In living our lives in such a way as to follow Jesus, to take the radical and difficult steps of letting go of the things of this world to be builders of the kingdom, we are in effect consecrating our lives to serve God. We do this as persons and even more so as the Church—a different type of community. All that we are and have is consecrated to this purpose: our time, our things, our money, our dreams, our suffering. And the promise is a new family of many houses, members and fields, along with persecution, for to live this life is to engage fully the suffering and pain and evil of the world. It is not an escape; it is an active engagement. It is a communal vision and one that hopefully can inspire the larger world around it.

There is another definition of consecrate and it is this one that all too often is what happens. It is this: to make an object of veneration or regard. Too often in the course of human life since human life as such began we get the focus wrong. Instead of consecrating our lives and its fruits to God, as things to serve the Holy One, we consecrate the things themselves. Just think of all the things that are “consecrated” in our society in this way: good looks, hip clothes, prestigious jobs, money, sports, sex, etc. These become the ends that are served before God.

Part of the core of our life as followers of Jesus is learning to truly see other people for who they are, warts and all, and to enter into relationship with them. To cultivate this ability we need to learn silence and presence. We are consecrating ourselves to the service of others rather than our own success or ego. We need to have time to be with people without a goal: we go for a walk and sit by a river rather than network; we have dinner with our family instead of another power lunch; we sit vigil by a sick person’s bedside; we sit and look at the world instead of working more overtime or taking on more activities we really can’t manage; we allow ourselves to see the heart of someone not all the surface stuff. The gift is the brothers and mothers and sisters and children of the kingdom of God.

For at the end of the day it matters not how much or how little we have but if we have connection, vital connection to other people. At the end of the day a fancy title cannot replace the ability to sit with someone in their pain or suffering as a steady, silent presence that will not leave. At the end of the day the gift of seeing all people no matter how flawed or messed up as reflections of part of God’s being gives us stores of compassion, the freedom to try new things, the openness of heart to embody a new society. At the end of the day it is not our net worth that matters, but if we have been able to see the worth of all people and live into relationships of dignity, respect and equity. This is the realness of life, the stuff that matters: authentic life with others not a ceaseless striving for outer trappings that at the end of the day can perhaps give us a sense of security but not love, not connection, not belonging, not the kingdom. Perhaps with God we can learn this sooner rather than later, now and not tomorrow, and live into it in our own lives and in the life we advocate for ourselves and others.

Which is why the community of faith is so important. Here we receive another vision, one that rejoices in who we each are with our gifts and abilities, and strives to live a different kind of life that honors all people. We come to learn about ourselves, those things in us that break our connection to one another, so that we can see another way to live. We strive to consecrate our lives to that vision drawn by Jesus time and again. We intentionally turn our lives over to God for with God all things are possible. We come to consecrate ourselves to be part of that kingdom of God and to live, struggles and all, for the sake of the good news.