Sermon preached October 11, 2015
Texts: Mark 10:17-31
Ringo Starr, “It Don’t Come Easy” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvEexTomE1I
We are rightly focused on the upside of being followers of Jesus, people of Christian faith. As the late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “discipleship is joy” (The Cost of Discipleship, 41). In a time when so much weighs so heavily upon us, we need to hear words about joy. Yet the book in which Bonhoeffer penned these words is a book entitled “The Cost of Discipleship,” and just prior to the proclamation that discipleship is joy, Bonhoeffer wrote: And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? Decisions and partings, perhaps discipleship don’t come easy.
A man approaches Jesus and kneels before him. The kneeling gesture may have meant he was seeking some kind of healing. At the very least, it was a gesture of deep respect offered by someone who apparently was well off. We are told later in the story that he had many possessions. He asks Jesus a question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This man seems to be sensing a certain emptiness in his life. Something is amiss. Jesus reminds him of the commandments, and the man replies that he has been keeping them since his youth. They were not enough. The sense of emptiness remained. Jesus senses the depth of the man’s questioning and seeking. In love Jesus offers something else. “Go, and sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man’s despair is deepened. When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
It ain’t easy – following Jesus. It don’t come easy – needed change in our lives. Let’s not kid ourselves about this. Discipleship, it ain’t easy.
Think with me about our individual lives. Sometimes we may experience a certain emptiness, a sense of something important missing, a sense of lost connection with the vital springs of life, a feeling of being distant from God. The man in the story wanted more. There must be more to life than being well-off and doing what’s expected. It was quite self-sufficient, but it was not enough. The therapist Michael Eigen describes this kind of situation well in his book Faith. Compulsive success in making and controlling wealth spirals to a point of destructiveness of the welfare of many, even destructive of the psychological-spiritual well-being of “winners.” (4) Perhaps that was what the man was experiencing and change was needed, a kind of spiritual therapeutics. But change can be difficult, can be experienced like a camel going through the eye of a needle.
Here is what Eigen writes later in his book about change and our resistance to it. To avoid psychic pain, one may attempt to destroy capabilities that experience it, including the possibility of destroying one’s own mind in order to avoid contact with intolerable perceptions, intolerable emotional realities. Instead of facing and modulating – destruction. (56) The answer, the spiritual therapy required is to face the difficult emotions, face our own fears, face how we have been working against our own well-being even when it is difficult and painful.
Jesus uses a remarkable image in Mark, “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.” By the way, that story about a gate in Jerusalem that was called the “Eye of the Needle” through which a camel could go if it kneeled down lowly enough, that story is not true. Jesus image is as stark as it seems. It is an image about the difficulty of change, I think. About the image, C. S. Lewis wrote this brief poem:
All things (e.g. a camel's journey through
A needle's eye) are possible, it's true.
But picture how the camel feels, squeezed out
In one long bloody thread, from tail to snout.
That’s how change can feel in our lives, even when we need to change to be connected to life again. It ain’t easy.
Following Jesus has something to do with giving of ourselves, and that can be difficult. Jesus asks the man to give away all that he has and give the money to the poor. Jesus does not ask that of everyone, but he does ask us to give, to give of ourselves, to give of our time, our talent, our energy, our resources. We are in the early stages of a capital campaign to work on this building, a facility that will be fifty years old next year. There are just some things that need doing, just like around our houses there are things that need to be cared for – roofs and floors and bathrooms and windows. We are doing this so we can continue the work to which Jesus calls us as a congregation. It can feel risky. Will we be here in another fifty years? Aren’t we tired of investing in a building? We give because we have been touched by God’s love and grace here. We give to extend our work here. There are no guarantees about the future, only the promise that comes with doing our best in following Jesus as this church.
There are no guarantees when we give of our time, energy and talents. Will the work we do really make a difference? Sometimes we get to see that it does, and sometimes we have to give of ourselves and trust God will use our efforts in ways we will not see. That kind of giving is difficult, and it is part of following Jesus. It don’t come easy.
The last challenge I want to explore with you this morning as we seek to think about the meaning of following Jesus is the challenge of the open heart. I recently read an interview with a guy named Francis Weller. I had never heard of him before, but in the interview he said something that has stayed with me. The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.
(Francis Weller, The Sun, October 2015)
Part of what is happening in Jesus encounter with the rich man in Mark is that Jesus invites this man to openness of heart, and to open his heart to the grief and pain of the world. “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” Had this man, in his self-sufficiency closed himself off from the poor, from seeing the pain and hurt in his world and feeling some grief about it?
I think of the words of Parker Palmer. There are at least two ways to understand what it means to have our hearts broken. One is to imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about – a feeling most of us know, and a fate we would like to avoid. The other is to imagine the heart broken open into new capacity – a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome. As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope. (A Hidden Wholeness, 178)
Following Jesus has something to do with being able to have our hearts broken in that way – to have hearts that can hold grief and gratitude, that have greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.
Earlier this week I was listening to National Public Radio. It is running a new series, #15Girls, exploring the lives of 15-year-old girls who are seeking to take control and change their fate. The story for the day was about fifteen year-old girls in El Salvador. Gangs in El Salvador control much of the country and the violence there is so endemic that someone dies there, on average, every hour. [http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/10/05/445985671/never-leave-your-house-survival-strategies-for-el-salvador-s-15girls]
In the story I heard about Marcella, age 15. Marcella’s boyfriend was a bus driver in a gang-controlled neighborhood. First, he started getting threats – “Help the gang or we will kill you.” He disappeared. Then Marcella began getting threats, and one day, walking in San Salvador with her sister, Marcella was executed by a gang member. She may have been targeted for not wanting to become a gang member’s girlfriend, or for refusing to help the gang in some other way.
In the story I heard about a fifteen year old named Jessica. Jessica began being bullied at school by another girl. The girl would ask for things, and threaten her with being beaten up after school. The bullying girl had a brother who was a gang member. One day the girl asked Jessica for a pencil, Jessica had only one, so she refused. Jessica has now disappeared.
In the story I heard about a girl who may not make it to fifteen. The girl got caught in Tampico, Mexico trying to make her way to the United States. She had traveled more than 1,000 miles and was only a few hours from the U.S. The smuggler her family paid for left her alone on a bus. She fell asleep, got caught by Mexican immigration and was sent back to El Salvador. Why was she leaving El Salvador? The girl said her father is in one of El Salvador's two main gangs. He's in prison for murder. And now he says if his ex-wife, the girl's mother, doesn't give him $50,000 when he gets out, he'll have the girl raped and killed.
Heartbreaking stories. I know that I cannot do much about these situations. I can pray. I can think a little bit differently about some of those trying to come into the United States from Central America. Here’s what I don’t think I can do if I am to follow Jesus. I cannot turn away. I cannot not care. I need to hold this grief. I need to let my heart be broken, but broken open.
What must we do to be part of God’s work in the world, God’s dream for the world, have a part in eternal life? And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? Be open to change, to giving, to holding grief. Let your heart be broken so it can grow bigger, be broken open. It ain’t easy. But as Bonhoeffer reminds us, Jesus never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen and heal it and the way of Jesus is a road of boundless mercy and discipleship is joy (The Cost of Discipleship, 40, 41). As Jesus tells Peter, Truly I tell you there is no one who has left house or brothers or sister or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with troubles – and in the age to come eternal life. It is another way of saying while it don’t come easy, discipleship is joy. Amen.