On Big Questions
October 10, 2021
Amos 5: 14-15
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate.
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Our sermon title for today is On Big Questions. Earlier this week I was in the Toadstool Bookstore in downtown Peterborough. They have a display there of books that have also been made into films. One book cover in particular caught my attention; it pictured a sandy desert with a parked aluminum airstream trailer. The title is Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-first Century. The write-up on the dust jacket explains that there is a growing workforce of people, mostly middle-aged and older, that live out of vans and RVs, traveling around as migrant workers, camping in campgrounds and on public land. The author spent almost a year traveling and working in this subculture; she found that many people were intentionally choosing this lifestyle in an effort to escape the overhead costs of housing and entrapment in minimum wage earnings. These modern nomads have certainly answered some of the big questions, questions like, “What means the most to me in my life? What is my time worth? What am I worth? What do I really need?”
I had already read the lectionary reading for today, the familiar “eye of the needle” passage. Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” I had already read biblical commentary explaining how the eye of the needle was a very narrow gate in the city wall around Jerusalem where a camel loaded with possessions could not pass through; it first had to be unpacked and the bags had to be passed through the gate. Sometimes the camel refused to go through the narrow opening. Sounds like a good place to hang out if you were in the market for buying a camel, cheap.
This “eye of the needle” is not the part of the scriptures that really rose off the page this time, though. There are three other parts I’d like to unpack with you today and the first is a line I have never before noticed. It comes early in the scripture after the man asks a very brave question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the man’s attention to the commandments, surely there is more work to do with one of these. But the man assures Jesus that he has obeyed all the commandments. Before the story goes any further, we can already see that this man is earnestly asking, “What more can I do?” This must have touched something within Jesus.
The author of the passage writes, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” I suggest here that because of that love, Jesus took it one step further by saying, “You lack one thing; sell your possessions, give to the poor and follow me.” If we really think about this, we inevitably come to the following question: what kind of love would ask such a thing, and what kind of love could give, give everything? It would require a very big love, indeed.
After the man recovers from his shock he goes away, grieving. Jesus then turns to the disciples and reiterates the point. In our translation, Jesus says, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God” but there is a footnote at the bottom of the page in my Bible that says it could be translated as follows: “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is the second point that rose up; I like this because it dissolves the artificial boundary between the classes and redirects the focus from how much a person has. Instead, the issue becomes the relationship a person has with physical possessions. We can no longer, then, look at this passage and assume Jesus is talking about someone else, someone who has more than we do, for there is always going to be that person. We are challenged, then, to look at where we place our trust. In possessions? In the balance in our bank account? In what or in whom do we trust? That becomes the question.
A young man by the name of James Barnett asked himself the question and he decided to resign from his six-figure employment, pack away his college degree in a box, and go to live on the streets as a voluntarily homeless person. He spent two years learning the ropes, experiencing the harsh reality, testing his faith, and eventually he partnered with a social activist in Atlanta, Georgia to form a non-profit, Clothe Your Neighbor as Yourself. James Barnett is now married and he lives in a house with his family, but he devotes his professional life to the betterment of humanity, forever changed by those years on the streets. James gained a new perspective through living on the streets and then he reconstructed his life with his priorities in a different order. I believe the essence of our story for today is this message: Take care that our attachment to things of this world do not eclipse and overshadow our relationship to the source of our greatest and deepest experience, Love itself.
Chances are we are not going to put all of our personal belongings and holdings up for sale this week, although you may be as surprised as I was to find out just how many people have done just that; Google “sell everything and give to poor” and you will find multiple, moving accounts.
Let’s return to that question from before: in what and in whom do we place our trust? These scriptures offer us the chance to refine ourselves, if you will, by taking an honest assessment of our relationship to what we have. James Barnett says, “When we need less, we can give more.”
There’s one more piece of the scripture I wanted to unpack and it wasn’t included in our reading for today, but it is part of the same chapter. After the disciples hear the words of Jesus, they are dismayed, the scriptures say they were “astounded” and they asked, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God, for God all things are possible.” What are we to make of this? Are we off the hook? For mortals it is impossible (to be saved); but not for God. For God, all things are possible.
In closing, I offer you the message I hear in this: we can not save ourselves, no amount of possessions or wealth can save us either. We know this intellectually, but do we live it? That is the big question, Friends. Only God can save us…save us from the distraction of too much stuff, and from the illusion that we will never have enough. Thankfully, there is one thing, and perhaps only one thing that can truly fill us like no other…the divine love that comes from within, not from without. To be filled from within, to know we are loved and to experience the effects of that love overflowing, effortless, into all we endeavor, into all we encounter, then we are saved, saved from ourselves most of all. So may it be. Amen.
James Barnett, a man who gave up everything he owned to live on the streets and love the poor
Dearest Beloved, our minds and our hearts are so full this morning. We are trying to make sense of the senseless, to find reason in the unreasonable, and to see You, Lord, in the inner workings of a culture that seems to be falling apart. Remind us, when we question, that Your presence is alive within us, preceding before us, inspiring us in the moment, and supporting us when we falter. We ask your blessings on those who are without, those who are in pain, and those who are frightened. May we be receptive to Your Holy Spirit working through us to nurture them, and nurture ourselves, in ways unexpected and profound. And now we pray together the prayer that Jesus gave to his disciples so long ago….Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the book of Jude, chapter 1 verse 20:
“As for you, Beloved, build up yourselves upon your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in the love of God, unto life everlasting”