The mission of Olivet Presbyterian Church in Staten Island, NY, is this:
Our mission at Olivet Presbyterian Church is to welcome all people
into our diverse family of Christian faith and fellowship,
to experience Gods presence in worship and daily living,
and to share the love of Christ by reaching out to those in need.
Sermon based on Mark 10:17-31
Though the government has given us a long weekend, conceivably to remember the long journey of Christopher Columbus to ‘discover’ America, a place that was, in fact, already both discovered and inhabited, our lives look pretty much the same today as they did three days ago.
I imagine that some of us are here today with a sense of peaceful well-being and gratitude for an extra day to rest. No schlep to the office or to get the kids to school; a morning without an alarm clock- Hallelujah- and time to savor a cup of coffee at your kitchen table instead of in the car or on the bus!
There are others, I imagine, who might be wishing that Monday wasn’t a holiday, because it means one less day of employment when every paid hour counts. It may be a day of financial anxiety and restlessness.
Some of us might have entered the church this morning in heartbroken disbelief that there have been two more school shootings, barely a week after the tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
We, each and every one of us, arrive in the presence of God carrying our various and sometimes heavy burdens, but with the same question: “What must we do, Good Teacher, to inherit eternal life?”
The trajectory of the life of faith arcs toward the promise that at the end of our time on this shore, another life awaits on another shore, in the eternal care of a God who knows life both mortal and eternal. But how will we get there? How will our actions and decisions, or our inaction and indecisions, influence our fate? How can we get confirmation from God that we are on the right track? That despite all evidence to the contrary- illness, heartache, persecution, loneliness- we are, in fact, heading on ‘the Way’?
In the pews, on our knees, in our prayers, at the bedside, in the hospital, we ask, “What must we do, Good Teacher, to inherit eternal life?”
It is one of the hallmarks of our Protestant, Reformed, Presbyterian tradition that allows us to say with confidence, “There is absolutely NOTHING we can do to inherit eternal life.”
We proclaim that eternal life is a gift from God that cannot be earned, but is given freely. We cannot merit salvation; for no one is good but God alone. And God who is good has more in store for us than we can imagine, and certainly more than we could effect on our own.
Jesus even says it for us, “For morals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
But that’s not the first thing Jesus says.
The first thing he says is this, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
It’s a bitter pill to swallow for this pious, heartfelt man, because it does, in fact, seem impossible to him. To sell everything and give it to the poor. To leave behind the former life. To not look book. To embark upon the Way, which is, you might remember, a term Jesus uses to describe himself- the way, the truth, the light.
I imagine that he took stock at that moment, on his knees, of what was being asked of him to give up. Maybe he thought about his grandmother’s house, that was bequeathed to him when his own mother passed away. Or his senior management position at the firm that took so many years to achieve. Or the money he set aside in a hidden corner of his home to take care of his wife and children if he should happen to die before them. Or his children and their futures. Or the life of religious orthodoxy that he cultivated out of a desire to be ‘right with God.’
If it’s harder for one with wealth to enter the kingdom of God than a camel to pass through the eye of the needle, it seems to me that we ought to take a closer look at that camel!
It’s not the camel’s long legs or bulky humps that make it difficult (but not impossible) for the camel to get through the eye. Camels were pack animals. It’s the saddlebags draped across the camel’s back that prevent its passing through. The camel sheds its saddle bags and squeezes through. The bags aren’t his anyway; nothing lost to let those go.
But we and our bags? That’s another story.
Our saddlebags are weighed down with books and mementos, clothing and tchochkes. It doesn’t take much to toss those bags to the side, or donate them to a worthy organization. There’s even a faddish book about a Japanese cleaning method that can tell you how to do that.
There are heavier bags, though, and they are filled with accomplishments– master’s degrees and promotions at work, grade point averages, and award-winning recipes.
Sources of pride and achievement take up a lot of space and can’t readily be donated to the poor and needy. Maybe the heaviest bags of all are the ones filled with our commitments and relationships, and with our hopes and dreams for the future- the promise of retirement and grandchildren, of new relationships and exciting adventures. Who could lay aside such possessions as these?
In the movie, Wild, the actress Reese Witherspoon portrays Cheryl Strayed, a young woman embarking on the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother and the end of her marriage. In a roadside motel, on the night before her departure, Strayed adds the last few items to her pack- a pack that weighed at least as much as she did and contained, essentially, her entire life.
She can hardly stand up; she can barely move. But she gets out of the hotel the following morning, and sets out on the trail. Within minutes, the path before her no longer looks like the way to the transformation, but a prolonged trial of torn skin and oozing blisters and aching muscles. Her spirit flags, and she approaches camp with an encroaching despair.
A man appears, a seasoned hiker, and he surveys the contents of her pack. Items that Strayed believes are just the barest of essentials- a water purifier, journal to write in, paper maps, underwear, food, a camera, windbreaker, headlamp, books to read, iodine tablets, a small pot, plate and utensils, extra fuel for the camping stove. The seasoned hiker looks, and he laughs. He laughs and laughs and starts to grab items from her pack and throw them in a box beside the trail. And Strayed, well, she yells at him, tries to grab them back, dumbfounded by what this man is liberating from her heavy pack.
She protests and makes her argument, I must keep this. How can I possibly survive without it?
And, I can’t remember exactly what he says, but I wonder if it is something like this- You’ve got it all wrong. The question is, How will you survive with it?
We ask of Jesus, how can I possibly survive without this? And Jesus says, You’ve got it all wrong. The question is, How will you survive with it?
David Lose, the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary, makes this suggestion:
What if this is a story about healing? What if this is the story about a heartsick man who follows the commandments and desires eternal life but cannot let go for the sake of following Jesus? What if somewhere deep down he knows that he’s holding on too tight and so seeks out Jesus with this question because he knows that whatever his appearance on the outside, whatever his faithful and pious life, he’s still missing something, something important, something that matters, something that’s a matter of life and death…
And Jesus loves him. And Jesus sees that all this guy has – his knowledge of the law, his perfect piety, his abundant wealth – has distorted his sense of himself, and of God, and of his neighbor. And so Jesus tells him to divest so that he can really live by faith in God and in solidarity with neighbor for the first time in his life, which would be like having, when you think about it, treasure in heaven.
If this is true then Jesus might just be doing the same thing to us even now. Jesus might be looking at us with love and, perceiving the deep heart sickness in each of us, actually asking something of us, giving us something to do, something to give up or away, somewhere to go.
This is not about our salvation; we are saved by grace through faith for Christ’s sake alone. But what if it doesn’t end there? Or better, what if, in one sense, it only starts there. That is, what if God isn’t only concerned about our eternal destiny but also cares about the life we enjoy here and now, with each other in God’s creation.
But of course that’s hard. Deep down we’re too scared (and often as a result too selfish) to do that for long, too scared and selfish and insecure and competitive and controlling and judgmental…and so many other things. Because when push comes to shove, we still don’t feel like giving up all we have.
Which is why Jesus comes and makes these demands, naming whatever idol we’ve created and asking us to give it up, throw it away, for the sake of our neighbor and ourselves.
I wonder what Jesus might be asking of you right now? As individuals, as a congregation. You and I have just met, so I don’t know what it is you might be holding on to.
But I know a little about churches. Churches can look a lot like Cheryl Strayed’s backpack, stuffed with all sorts of things that might come in handy, or ‘could’ be useful somewhere along the way. I’ve been in churches with storage closets filled to the brim with old hymnals, binders of Session minutes from thirty years ago, cracked silver platters, and dusty, moth-eaten paraments. But instead of clearing out that closet to fill it with canned goods and toiletries for the hungry and homeless, the closet stays as it is, waiting for the past to catch up and become the present again.
I’m not giving away the movie by telling you that with teeth gritted, Cheryl Strayed allows the hiker to toss away almost everything she thought she would need to survive. And she did survive. Her pack was lighter; her burden less burdensome. She became freer, more nimble, adaptable to the changing conditions of the trail and able to count on herself, not the stuff she had held on to so tightly, to find her way.
Who can be for us the hiker on the trail, who can sit with our pack- our overflowing storage closets or events and programs that used to be vital but no longer are. Who can help us see it all for what it is? Obstacles on our Way into discipleship, into life abundant, toward life eternal. Who can help us see that the tighter we hold on, the more we have to lose?
Over the past two weeks, I have watched, via social media, a dear acquaintance from my past prepare to die. She turned 39 last week, and her abdomen is filled with cancerous lumps that the surgeons cannot remove. She has been fighting gastric cancer for two years. In a previous operation, her stomach was removed. She went through chemo and radiation. There was a moment of hope, when we all held our breath with cautious optimism. But it wasn’t to be.
Rachel has lived in San Francisco these past few years. She is an oncologist, if you can believe it, ushered there by her desire to prevent the cancer that killed her mother when Rachel was only 12 years old. After graduating medical school in the top of her class, she received a prestigious fellowship and chose to live in rural China, treating drug resistant disease in a brutally impoverished community.
Rachel is in hospice now, and she is shedding the weight she has carried. Her apartment and belongings in San Francisco. Her job. Her hobbies and passions. She has traveled back to St. Louis to be with her dad and her sister. She is, in some ways, lighter than she’s ever been. Her life has become small and sharply focused. No more social media. No more overbooked calendar. No more vacations to exotic places.
What is left of her life now is for her immediate family and for, perhaps, the most important item from her backpack. Gratitude. She prepared a YouTube video for those of us who love her but can’t reach her now. Rachel is sitting on a stool, wearing a Cardinal t-shirt and flowered pajama pants. Her hair is in the same ponytail she’s worn all her life. An NG tube is taped to her nose. She cannot speak. With a smile on her face, she holds a series of posters, which she reveals one by one. It is a thank you letter to her friends, a thank you letter to the world, a farewell postcard from the other side, though she is still here, for now…
Whether she knows this or not (and I suspect she knows it), Rachel has taken a look at my pack, and at the thousands of packs on the backs of the people she has loved over these too few years, and gently encouraged us to unburden ourselves. She is walking ahead of us now, and she’s seen the way and all its beauty and all its hardship, and she knows what little is needed to make her way forward, toward a place whose opening is as slim as the eye of a needle… just enough room for her to slip through.
God has promised to be there for us on the other side of that narrow opening; we can count on it. But God also cares about us today, and doesn’t mean for us to grieve all the plans we’ve made for the perfect life and lose sight of who and whose we are. We are God’s. We are beloved. And that’s all we need to take with us.
And Jesus said to the man whom he loved, “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.”
It is a gift being offered, not a punishment. An invitation, an open door. To feel our pack light upon our backs and the way stretched out ahead of us, bright and fearless and extraordinary.
May it be so.