Psalm 90: 12-17……….Mark 10: 17-31……….20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 10, 2021……….Rev. Patrick Mecham
Letting Go and Letting In…………….Special Message by Maggie A.F. Harmon, Esq.
A common critique of my sermons that I have received, and it may be a mistake to start a sermon by telling you what the problems are, but here goes – a common critique I have heard is that I am too academic (not shocking in a presbyterian church) and that I don’t share enough of my personal experience. This is probably fair; I do tend to get very into the literary and historical analysis of the text, I am after all an English Lit. major who became a lawyer and went to seminary. In the best imitation of John Calvin I can offer some might say I have a tendency to over intellectualize things. Mea culpa.
And as to the secondary complaint that I don’t share enough of my personal experience well that’s true too, and that is intentional. I’m here to be a conduit, to offer whatever learning I can, not to regale you with tales of my life. Or so I believe. But today I am going to try something different, I’m going to share a little more personally than I usually do, and I’m going to do that both as a challenge to myself because it makes me uncomfortable and as we have heard, “the opportunity for growth is waiting at the offramp of our comfort zone.” And I am also going to do this because I think there is a radical vulnerability to is being asked of us in today’s scripture lesson so I want to teach it by doing it.
We will start with the scripture: I have heard this passage preached on many times, often as a stewardship sermon though I have never been able to understand how you can go from telling people that if they have money they aren’t going to heaven and in the next breath ask them to declare that they have wealth by handing it over. Used in this way I think this lesson does more to teach false humility than a healthy relationship with money but that’s not what I want to talk about really. I have also heard this lesson used to indict the rich, sort of a neener-neener sour grapes type of thing: you might be rich Jeff Bezos but you’re not getting into heaven. I don’t think that engaging in biblical schadenfreude is healthy either, and I don’t think that this is what Jesus is really talking about anyway.
Ah Jesus, teller of cryptic tales and parables. Thank goodness so much of what he said was vague or what would we do with our time if we didn’t have to spend so much of it trying to understand.
On the surface I know that this is not one of those parables that seems vague, right? A rich man says to Jesus, I’ve been doing all the right things, checking the right boxes, so is there anything else I’m supposed to do to ensure that I have eternal life? Can you imagine this comfortable, righteous, influential man adding to the list of the right things he was doing by asking this renowned teacher for affirmation? He was probably expecting Jesus to respond by being flattered by the honor and to say, “you’re great – you’re doing all the right things, you’ve got this.”
But that’s not what happens. In two sentences Jesus re-teaches the focus of the decalogue (the ten commandments), and then completely pulls the rug out from under this man by saying, “but wait, there’s more.” Because it’s not just about doing the right thing, it’s also about aligning your priorities to God things.
So let’s break this down: first Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one if good but God alone.” Remember the first part of the ten commandments? I am the Lord you God, you shall not have any God but me, you shall not have idols. Don’t call me good, capital G, don’t make me an idol or an object of worship here on earth, love God, revere God with all of your heart, mind, strength. This is the first lesson – keep God at the front of everything you are doing – God first. This is the first response Jesus offers this man who ran up to him, clearly feeling that he was important and would be able to give him an assurance that he wanted, and Jesus says ‘no – you have already got it wrong if you are thinking that someone here on earth can do for you what God alone can do.’
Then we get the second part of the decalogue – all the things we are not supposed to do. And I don’t mean to be flippant about this, I don’t think that Jesus is being flippant – these are the behavioral cues that we use to help keep us aligned to God’s will for us. Don’t do things that harm others because that is definitely not loving them. Our unnamed man in the story says ‘great – I have been doing/not doing all of this since I was young.’ So far so good, eternal life right around the corner, but not so fast says Jesus, there’s just one more thing. And this is where we run into some trouble.
Now this is the part of the lesson where we usually get hung up on it being about money because as we learn the man in the story has a lot of money. We are told “he had many possessions.” And Jesus is saying to him you need to give up your possessions if you want to follow me. How does Jesus know that he has many possessions, and does this really mean that we should all go sell everything we have and give it away in order to be true followers of Christ? Two questions I know. As to the first we are told, Jesus looked at him and loved him. Have you ever had the experience of someone looking at you in a way where you felt totally seen down to your soul, past all the trappings of identity and into your very core. Well here we have Jesus looking at him, and given what he says next we can assume that he was probably looking at someone with fine clothes, well kept, articulate, but then he goes on and he loves him – he looks into his soul past the finery and can see in that loving what the problem is.
It’s not about the money, it’s about how this man feels about the money and it’s getting in the way of his being able to focus on that first, most important piece – God.
I’m a meditator, which when you say that sounds good and really spiritual and I can feel all well aligned and at peace. But the truth is about half the time when I’m meditating I’m not finding transcendence I’m fighting with my brain to stop working on the grocery list, or wondering if I paid the such and such bill, or telling myself to not forget to do the whatever thing I forgot to do. We let the other stuff, the earth stuff, the normal human cares stuff get in our vision when what we need to be doing is focusing on God first.
This is not easy. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” Verse 22 reads, “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Eugene Peterson in The Message translates this verse as, “He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.”
The challenge Jesus is presenting to this man is couched in terms of money, but I think what he is really saying to him is ‘you have to let go of your identity, you have to let go of your ego, and worrying about all this earth stuff.” If you let go of that you can follow me, you can walk in my way where we are following God as the source of goodness, the path of complete surrender.
We have to be prepared to give up those things that distract us from aligning ourselves to God first thinking if we want to reside in God’s kingdom. I don’t say this in the context of reward and punishment: do the right thing you get a ticket to heaven, do the wrong thing no ticket and your left out. No, this is not what I’m suggesting and I don’t even think that this is what Jesus is saying when he says it is harder for a rich man to get to heaven then to get a camel through the eye of a needle. It’s a metaphor right? The lesson is that if we are so busy in our own ego-centric identities we are not starting with God, were not making ourselves available to what it is that God is offering us because we are so busy filling ourselves up with other things.
One of the commentators I read preparing this sermon put it this way, “riches may become a hindrance to entering the kingdom. They do this when they take the first place in the affections and in the estimates of good.”
I’m reading a book by Brene Brown called The Gifts of Imperfection and she talks about something similar as a problem in preventing us from having authentic relationships with ourselves and each other when we fail to expose our own vulnerability. You can’t let someone in if you have built a wall around yourself. If that wall is made up of money and possessions, a list of degrees, an impressive title, an accomplished family, whatever that is for you, whatever that ego thing is, that’s the thing that is preventing you from being able to engage authentically with your fellow humans denying yourself access to the kingdom of God in which we love each other, and Jesus reminds us denying access to God and God working in our hearts.
This man in the lesson today, what would he lose if he gave up his possessions, the things that were hindering his ability to be a follower of Jesus? Social influence? Status? Never mind that actual things he would be giving up, maybe a comfortable house in the good part of town, rich foods, servants? What does he risk by becoming less focused on possessions and reoriented to God. Now remember Jesus hung out with a lot of people, rich and poor, and he did not say to every rich person he encountered ‘give up all your possessions.’ It’s not about the money, though in some cases, for some people it may very well be money that is the hindrance to following Jesus; but for a lot of us it’s something else. It is whatever is that thing that we are not willing to let go of because it is so important to our definition of ourselves.
Several years ago I took a class while on retreat called Letting Go and Letting In, which I borrowed, respectfully for the title of this sermon. The teacher, a lovely and wise woman was coming from the perspective of healing from childhood trauma and abuse, which I had suffered, and she said you have to be ready and willing to let something else in before you can let something go. Nature, physical and spiritual, abhors a vacuum so you can’t just let something go and then have an empty space, something is going to come along and fill that up. So as people of faith sitting here together I would ask you, what are you ready and willing to give up in order to make space for God to come in.
That’s the lesson today, that’s what Jesus was trying to teach both the man who came to him and to his disciples. Tune yourself to God first, be willing to let God in, and then figure out what it is that is getting in your way, what is the things that prevents you from creating space for God to fully enter your life, which allows you to be living, actively as a part of the kingdom?
What is that thing for you that feels totally vulnerable, that is giving up your “riches” and showing up with a simple, poor heart? Only when we do that work, when we are willing to say, “help,” “this is who I am,” “this is what I need,” “this is where I hurt,” only then can we truly meet each other and care or each other and receive that filling up-ness that comes from God.
And this is beautiful paradox that Jesus teaches, because it is so hard for us to do that, to surrender so completely, “for mortals it is impossible.” But it is not impossible for God, “for God all things are possible” if only we will start by being willing. If we can start with God, and ask for God’s help to surrender the very things that make it impossible for us to start with God, then we make it.
The message translates verse 27 saying we have, “no chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.”
What do you need to let go of? What do you want to let in?