Sunday, October 15, 2006

Proper 23B

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:1-8, 12; Hebrews 3:1-6; Mark 10:17-27 (28-31)

I really felt like I had been doing everything right. Carefully, deliberately, I followed all the rules. If I ever found myself in the middle of a mistake, I stopped, took a deep breath, figured out where I’d gone wrong and started over. There was evidence of my effort and of my success all over the place. But I wanted more. So I went to my good teacher and asked, “Mom, what must I do to knit a sock?”

One look at the instructions, and I was shocked, astounded, perplexed, even a little grieved – it looked impossible. If you want to knit a sock, there are two things you must do. One – hold four toothpick-sized double-pointed needles in one hand, and with the fifth needle in the other hand, repeat to yourself “knit seventeen, slip slip knit, knit one, turn, slip one, purl seven, purl two together, purl one, turn….” And two – never, ever forget where your stitch markers are when you’re shaping the gusset, ever. Well. At least you’re just wrapping yarn around the needles – you don’t have to thread one.

Some people can learn to knit socks from a book. Not me. I realized right away I would only learn by following my teacher, watching her work. Mom sat right beside me and walked me through the whole thing, keeping a close eye on what I was doing, gently correcting my technique, encouraging me when I was sure it couldn’t be done, when I couldn’t see the sock taking shape, when I was ready to walk away. With her help, I learned to trust that it would be okay to let go of the needles, to let go of stitches, to trust that there was a pattern, however mysterious, and that if I could stay with it, when I was done the world would be a warmer, more colorful place. At least for one foot, God-willing!

If you want to inherit the kingdom of God, Jesus told the rich man, there are two things you must do. One – never, ever break any of the commandments, ever. And two – give away everything you’ve got, all of it. Well. At least you don’t have to thread a needle – oh, wait, yes you do, with a camel!

As opposed to sock knitting, which didn’t turn out to be so bad, it is indeed impossible for us to follow Jesus’ instructions to the rich man, to the disciples – to us. We break commandments all the time, usually because of our unrelenting grip on everything we’ve got, all of it. There is no way to get a camel through the eye of a needle. Which means it should be impossible for us to inherit the kingdom, to be saved, to have eternal life, and it is impossible….for us. But not for God, Jesus says. For God all things are possible.

It was a mysterious pattern, unlike any that had been seen before. In that time, personal wealth – for that matter, personal health, any sort of success – was believed to be a sign of God’s blessing. Which meant, of course, that poverty and illness were believed to be signs of God’s displeasure. The rich man, who had carefully and deliberately followed all the rules, faithfully kept all the commandments, deserved his wealth, deserved his blessedness – he had earned it. But he wanted more, and so, trusting in the only pattern he knew, he asked, Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life, to live forever in the kingdom of God, to be saved?

The rich man was looking for a gauge, a measure by which he could know when he had earned his reward, when he could count his blessings. He was so focused on what he had to do, he didn’t see that Jesus had moved the marker. The measure of his worth, of his blessedness, of his salvation, wasn’t written in the law but, rather, in Jesus’ face.

Jesus, looking at him, loved him.

The disciples were equally perplexed, caught up in the familiar pattern of “you get what you deserve”. This man, by that pattern, was already blessed, but Jesus told him he had to give all his blessings away, that he’d never be able to thread his way through to salvation if he didn’t. 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. Well, Jesus, if not this man who has been so righteous, who has been so obviously blessed, then who can be saved? the disciples asked, probably measuring their own chances. They didn’t see that Jesus had moved the marker. The gauge, the measure of their worth, of their blessedness, of their salvation, was in Jesus’ face.

Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Jesus looked at the rich man, looked at the disciples, looks at us, and loves us all. That’s how we are measured. That’s how we are saved. Not by what we do, not by what we have, but by how we are loved by God through the eyes of Jesus Christ, fears, doubts, wealth, baggage, camels, mistakes, sins and all. We are measured not by what is impossible for us, but by what is possible for God – light out of darkness, hope out of despair, life out of death….

That’s good news. It gets even better – hard, still impossible for us, but better.

You see, Jesus’ radical demands of us this morning, of the past several Sundays now – lay down your life, take up your cross, be last of all and servant of all, be like a child, keep the commandments, give away everything you have, all of it – these demands aren’t what we must do in order to inherit the kingdom, to have eternal life, to be saved. They are what we are called to do because we are already kingdom people, because we have already been saved, because Jesus makes it all possible.

How will we measure our lives? The world’s pattern is about the same now as it was then – you are what you own, what you earn, what you have, what you can do. The world’s markers are accomplishment, influence, power, status, success, possessions. How big is your camel? What does it carry?

The rich man measured his life by his wealth. It defined him. His camel carried many possessions, and in the world that probably opened doors for him. In the world’s pattern wealth measures everyone to some degree, doesn’t it? After all, food, clothing, and shelter aren’t free.
Jesus was asking the rich man to give up more than just his stuff. He was asking the rich man to give up measuring himself, his life, his world in terms of that stuff and, instead, to measure it all in love. Did you notice? Jesus doesn’t say, just tie up your camel, leave your possessions behind and follow me. Instead, you lack one thing, he says. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.…then come, follow me.

The kingdom of God is not a trophy to be earned or a treasure to be won. It is a pattern of life marked by grace, measured by love, and, impossibly, revealed by us, fears, doubts, wealth, baggage, camels, mistakes, sins and all. If we would truly follow Jesus, we must be willing to put whatever we love most in the world, whatever we believe measures and defines us, whatever opens doors for us, whatever we would not be the same without – we must be willing to put all our baggage entirely in the hands of Jesus Christ, to place all of who we are in the service of love if Jesus should ask, to give out of how we have been blessed by God, through whom all things are possible. In this way the kingdom pattern emerges here and now, a real glimpse of the kingdom that will one day enfold us all in life everlasting. It was a glimpse that Jesus might have first seen in the loving face of his mother, he enfolded in her arms as she softly sang about the day an angel said to her that all things were possible for God: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;…he has mercy…he has shown strength…he has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things….

Discipleship is a perilous journey in the world, whose patterns we will always find both alluring and alarming. It’s easy to get cold feet. But discipleship is about following the one whose own perilous journey made possible what we could never accomplish alone. We learn by following him, looking at him, watching him work. And he stays right beside us, walking us through the whole thing, keeping a close eye on what we are doing, gently correcting our technique, encouraging us when we are sure it can’t be done, when we can’t see the kingdom patter taking shape, when we are ready to walk away with our camels, grieving….

As our collect this morning proclaimed, God’s grace always precedes and follows us, providing richly for us as we thread our way through life’s needles, knitting us together as holy partners in a heavenly calling to accomplish the prayer that Jesus, who so loves us, taught: God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible. Amen.

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