SERMON FOR l0th OCTOBER, 2021
Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Amos 5: 6-7 and 10-15; Mark l-0: 1-7-31
"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" The question the man asked Jesus, as we heard in the gospel. There are many encounters recorded between individuals and Jesus, and nearly all those individuals are changed through those encounters. Jesus reeled off six of the commandments, and the man was no doubt pleased to be able to say that he had observed all those since his youth. But, of course, there was something else hindering him - and it wasn't something to be found in the ten commandments. He was a person of many possessions, usually interpreted as 'being rich.'
I remember a wise priest once telling me that most of us have a blind spot when it comes to our own character, some fault or weakness that we are loathe to admit or genuinely can't see. The man in the story didn't understand how his love of material possessions was hindering him from total allegiance to God, or to Jesus. We might think Jesus was being a bit hard on the man. Maybe it was the way the question was asked, "What must I do to gain eternal life: to gain!." He was out to gain something. He already had many blessings, but wanted more, and he was probably willing to give something for it. There is always the danger of being possessed by things, instead of owning them. We spend much of our lives seeking to gain things; to get, to have, and we can be in danger of losing sight of loving and giving of ourselves. The rich man was given an opportunity by Jesus - to leave it all and follow him, but he went away grieving -'because he had many possessions'. He could not enter into the fullness of life because of the things that were around him. David Adam comments that 'this is surely one of the most tragic stories of the Gospels and a warning to us.'
Maybe excessive wealth isn't a problem for you or me. But the gospel does open the wider question: 'What is the Christian attitude to the material?" The writer Charles Williams suggested that there have been two chief ways to approach God in Christian thought. One is the 'Way of Rejection'-that is, the renunciation of all affections except for God himself. Some people live out this way in enclosed religious communities, or as hermits. The other path is the 'Way of Affirmation'- to rejoice in our relationships and not to despise the things which human hands have made. This is the way most of us follow; but surely both are valid in God's eyes. T.S. Eliot said, 'Neither way is better. Both ways are necessary.'
But to return to the rich man's question - What must I do to inherit eternal life? Am I doing enough to keep on the right side? I recall being asked to go and see a dying man, about twenty years ago now; a man not known to us at the church in that parish. From his bed he asked me if he had done enough to be 'alright'. Rather like the man of possessions who came to Jesus, it appeared he had lived an honest and upright life. But God didn't seem to have featured prominently in his thinking until those last days. Who was I to judge? But of course I assured him of the love of a merciful God.
But to go back to the gospel: Jesus been teaching about eternal life - the age to come - when God would bring in his kingdom. Who was to enter that kingdom was the big question for those who lived around Jesus, as they began to realize that he held the key. lt is not enough simply to fulfill the commandments; because entry into the kingdom means total response. So Jesus had a hard message for the rich man, but notice that - looking at him, he loved him. This wasn't an especially harsh rebuke, but he was openly told what he had to do.
The conversation with the rich man seemed to have unnerved Peter, and indeed the other disciples. For Jesus had said it would be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom. ln the thinking of the time, if you were wealthy, it was considered that you had God's favour. You might want to say that we don't think like that any more, but I wonder. Are not the poor still oppressed in this world? Are they not the ones without voice and influence; are they not the ones disregarded?
The disciples were astounded to be told that it would be hard for the rich to enter the kingdom. "Who then can be saved?" And then Peter falls into a bit of a trap by asking - well, what about us? We've given up everything to follow you. No doubt he expected applause or approval. But he got good news and bad news. They will receive good stuff in due course, but also persecutions. Peter himself was destined to hang upside down on a cross to die.
So there is no room for any cornplacency in this gospel reading, nor in that from Amos, from the Old Testament. He wrote to challenge the society in which he lived, against the injustices of wealth and poverty, reminding his hearers that God's judgment would fall on lsrael for the sins of bribery and corruption which impoverished the needy. Those who felt secure in their material well-being - like the rich man in the gospel story, and perhaps like us, living in a comfortable part of the world - would discover that any confidence in what they had would be ill-founded. A day of the Lord - a time of judgment - was imminent. But there is a glimmer of hope. Three times we hear what the people must do; what we must do. Seek the Lord and live; seek good and not evil; hate evil and love good. Amos sees an opportunity for turning and renewal; for the renewal of justice and righteousness will begin with a renewal of personal faith in the Lord.
A couple of weeks ago the gospel ended with Jesus saying that those who wanted to enter the kingdom of heaven must do so like children - eager, trusting, open-hearted, without calculation. It's surely no coincidence that Mark goes straight on with this account of the conversation between the rich man and Jesus. He was certainly no worse than many of his contemporaries, maybe better, but he was a product of the society in which he lived, as we all are. As we endeavour to live out our Christian faith, we face many subtle pressures and influences to conform to the present age, with its emphasis on materialism, success, pleasure. It is not that we shouldn't have possessions, or that we shouldn't have enjoyment in our lives, or use our God-given talents to reach fulfillment in life, but we shouldn't put such store in those things that we forget the sovereignty of God in our lives.
It is said that the Church is at its best when it is counter-cultural- standing against some of the norms of society because they seem contrary to God's way. On the 12th October, Tuesday, the Church remembers two women of the recent past whose lives should cause us to review our own. Elizabeth Fry died on the 12th Octobe r 1845. She worked tirelessly for prison reform; devoted much of her time to the welfare of female prisoners, and took part in the formation of a nightly shelter for the homeless in London.
Edith Cavell was a British nurse from Norfolk, who ended up working with the Red Cross in Belgium. On the outbreak of the First World War, she became involved in caring for wounded soldiers on both sides of the conflict. On the l2th October 1915, Edith was executed by the Germans for smuggling British soldiers from occupied Belgium into Holland. She was convinced that what she was doing had been her Christian duty.
We aren't all called to such notable ventures as Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell, but we are challenged to confront within ourselves whatever it is that hinders us from full discipleship. So the original question the rich man asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" is probably one we should ask, and be able to answer, ourselves.
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