Homily: What Jesus Really Said

Respect Life Month – Focus:

The River of Life — Childhood

Childhood was created when we stopped sending children down mines, up chimneys, into factories and out to the fields.

From this imprecise point children began to be valued for who they are, and to be protected and educated.

Quite right, too.

It was not, is not the case everywhere.

In some places childhood ends, at least for girl-children, with marriage, and its upshot, motherhood..

So it was for the mid-teens Mary from Nazareth, two thousand years ago; and countless others.

Childhood contracts and shrivels, threatening to disappear as innocence is torn away.

The secrets of adulthood, once wrapped in safe brown paper, lie rude and exposed, as children are devalued,sacrificed and cast aside.

Childhood’s beauty is painted over, and trained to perform before judges; while digital technology offers a thousand doorways to a sad adulthood.

Toddlers with cigarettes; children who know how to calculate the odds.

Let the children come to me, a carpenter-teacher once said.

Let them climb; let them rise above all that would limit and deny, and discover holy childhood life.

Neil Postman (1931-2003) wrote The Disappearance of Childhood, published in 1982.


October 14, 2012    

The Rich Young Man – What Jesus REALLY Said

This Sunday’s gospel can rightly be called a doozy. It’s got at least two points that the vast majority of nice, churchgoing people I know will find literally incredible; they wouldn’t believe that Jesus really said this stuff, and if he did, they wouldn’t believe that he meant it. In one Sunday’s reading, we get:

  • It’s harder for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
  • Jesus says that God will reward people who LEAVE THEIR FAMILIES, including children and parents they’re caring for, for his sake and for the sake of the Good News. It’s right there in verses 29 and 30.

Careful readers will see even more points in this Sunday’s reading likely to stick in our throats, but those two are more than enough to point here and now. I’m betting that a lot of sermons this Sunday will fall into the genre of “He didn’t really mean it,” a point supported by a slew of fictitious technicalities.

For example, I’m sure that many have heard that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem called ‘The Eye of the Needle’, which was so narrow that a camel couldn’t get through it unless the packs it was carrying were removed, at which point it could get through laboriously on its knees. Sermons citing this story usually go on to say that Jesus’ point is that rich people can enter God’s kingdom as long as they aren’t overly attached to their possessions and have a humble and prayerful attitude. Depending on how well stewardship campaigns are progressing, the preacher might add something to the effect that if you’re concerned about this, upping your pledge couldn’t hurt.

The congregation sighs with relief, and we all get on with business as usual, secure in the knowledge that following Jesus doesn’t really require that we do anything ‘radical’, for heaven’s sake.

I’m sorry to say, though, that there is no evidence whatsoever that there was ever any such ‘Eye of the Needle’ gate. Careful readers could tell as much just from the fact that, if Jesus had been talking about such a gate, His hearers wouldn’t have been astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?!” They would have said something more like, “What a bummer to have to carry those packs yourself for 50 feet.” And Jesus would not have replied that it’s impossible for mortals but nothing is impossible for God; He would have said something more like, “gosh you all are dim sometimes — just take off the camel’s packs and you’re fine!”

There is no such easy out for us, though. There is no ‘Eye of the Needle’ gate that camels can crawl through. There is no technical point of Greek to tell us that Jesus really didn’t mean what He seems to be saying here.

Nor can most of us say, “Oh, but I’m not rich.” Try entering your income on globalrichlist.com and see where you end up. A income of $36,000, for example, would have put you in the top 4% of wage earners worldwide.

Likewise, preachers often invent or conveniently misremember some technical point that would make ‘hate’ mean ‘love less’, ‘rich’ mean ‘ungenerous’, and ‘follow me’ mean ‘do pretty much what your parents taught you will make you respectable and successful’.

But that isn’t so.

You see, my job this Sunday is to bring you all to the place Jesus’ disciples were when they said, in effect, “What are you saying?” I haven’t done my job if we don’t get there. The job of a sermon, in my opinion, is not to resolve difficulties. The job of a sermon is to inspire deeper discipleship, and discipleship is not easy. Jesus offers us abundant and eternal life — real joy, real love, real peace. Worldly success and respectability can’t give those to us. The opportunity we are being offered this Sunday and every day is to let the shock of Jesus’ word jolt us out of those old, unfulfilling, enslaving ways of seeing, living, and relating to others so that we’re freed to experience more of what God wants for us, as individuals, as members of the Body of Christ, and as members of our communities, our society and our world. That’s profound transformation, and we do a profound disservice to one another when we pretend otherwise. I have to tell you – and myself —  this Sunday’s gospel does nothing more and nothing less than call on each and every one of us to be transformed, to think and pray long and hard about what we’re called to do in this world with respect to wealth and poverty.

And the rest of this gospel passage, about leaving father & mother — helps to clarify all this about wealth and riches. Wealth isn’t just “stuff,”. Wealth is a — perhaps the — worldly value. It orders our relationships — with one another, with our neighbors, with people across town and on other continents — in subtle and powerful ways too numerous to count. And therefore the obscene, unjust patterns along which we distribute wealth in our world are symptoms of our disordered, broken relationships that also further impair that disordered, unhealthy brokenness.

Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said what He did about wealth any more than He was kidding when He said what He did about relationships. God’s kingdom, God’s rule, God’s way of using power are entirely incompatible with our way of using power to maintain our wealth and shut the rest of the world out of it. ‘Charity’ — the practice of doling out money from our considerable wealth to those who are poor in a way that in no way changes their lack of access to wealth and power — is a seductive trap that consolidates our power, adding to it even the power of doling out life and death around our choices of how much to give and to whom; and yet it lets us feel particularly generous and self-righteous in the process.

Jesus is not calling us to make some minor tweaks in our relationship to wealth. He’s calling us to something far more radical and far more transforming; he’s calling us to reconciliation, with one another and with God.

That’s no small thing. It’s huge. Nothing will be the same, and yet that’s what we need to do to be more fully ourselves, more fully human in God’s image, more fully alive in the eternal life that God offers. That’s why Jesus talks about it as he does in this Sunday’s gospel, putting nothing in parentheses for ‘optional discipleship’.

Jesus is not just talking about a few minor tweaks to financial planning; he’s talking about a new world. And yes, that means new ways of relating to one another. Jesus’ words about what the world means when it says “family” were at least as shocking in his own culture as they are in ours.

And yet there it is. He said it. He meant it. There’s no preacher’s trick that will get us with any integrity from what Jesus taught and how Jesus lived and died to “God wants you to be respectable, but MORE so.”

That sounds like a lot to take on, and it is. But the Good News is that, as Jesus said, and as Bishop Zubik is fond of saying “Nothing is impossible with God”. It might take some deep shocks to jolt us out of our old perspectives. If we find ourselves looking at how huge is the transformation to which Jesus’ Way calls us and our world and saying, “How is this possible? Who on earth can be saved?” that’s probably a good sign. It can mean that we’re ready to make some different choices with potentially radical consequences, to throw ourselves — all we have and all we are — on God’s mercy. And the Good News is that God’s mercy is beyond human reckoning, deeper and taller and broader than even the brokenness of this, our world that God is healing and reconciling – even as we speak.        Rev. Sarah Dylan   www.sarahlaughed.net




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