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October 11, 2015 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
A link to the audio file for this sermon is also here.
What if I told you that there was only one thing you had to do to go to heaven? Just one thing—and not some crazy, ridiculous Herculean feat that none of us could do—but one, simple, within-your-power thing that gives you a guaranteed ticket straight to paradise when you die. Would you do it? What if it wasn’t easy? What if it turned out to be a really difficult thing but still something totally possible? Would you do it? What if it required you to give up something really important? Would you still do that one thing even if you had to reorient your life completely and make some huge changes in order to do it? Would it be worth it? Maybe it sounds crazy, but what I’m asking you is how much you think heaven is worth because Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man in today’s gospel lesson forces us to ask that very question: what would we give up for heaven?
A man came to Jesus and knelt before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Before listening to Jesus’ response, take a moment to think about that scene. The man knelt before Jesus. That was a sign of humility and respect—the universal posture of supplication. The man needed something, and he knew that Jesus was the one who could give it to him. Jesus’ reply was in response to this man’s hopeful request, and his words were exactly the kind of answer any religious teacher would give: “You know the commandments—don’t murder, steal, or lie; don’t defraud your neighbor, and honor your father and mother.” And the man said, “Yes, I know all of that. I’ve done all of that, but I want to be sure. I want to know what is missing.” And then Jesus leveled the spiritual blow that sent the man reeling.
Jesus looked at the man and loved him, and, in that love, he said, “You lack one thing. Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.” Jesus wasn’t picking on the man. He loved him. He wanted the man to find the salvation he sought. But Jesus wasn’t just any teacher, he was the Good Teacher, and he could see that, despite keeping the commandments, the man was missing one thing. “If you want to inherit eternal life,” Jesus said with hope and love in his heart, “Go sell everything that you have, and give it all to the poor.” And the words shocked the man, and he went away grieving because, as Mark tells us, he had many possessions.
Today, dear friends, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Jesus isn’t asking each of us to sell everything that we have and give it to the poor. But the bad news is that whatever he’s asking us to do is just as hard for us. What is your one thing? If you knelt down at the feet of Jesus and asked him what you must do to inherit eternal life, what is the one thing that Jesus would ask you to give up? What’s the one thing that, as soon as you heard him say it, you know you’d have no choice but to get up and walk away full of grief? What’s your one thing? What’s the one thing that is keeping you from entering God’s kingdom?
The key verse in this passage isn’t the bit about selling all that you have and giving it to the poor. And it’s not about rich people having a harder time getting into heaven than a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. No, the one thing you need to hear is Jesus’s response to the disciples’ question about who can be saved: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” If you want to go to heaven, that’s the only thing you need to learn—that, if it were up to you to get inside those pearly gates, you’d have no chance at all. Instead, you must learn that the only way you’re ever going to get into God’s kingdom is by depending totally and completely and exclusively on God.
Money just happens be the one thing that gets in the way more often than anything else. Why? Because money give us the illusion of power. Money gives us the illusion of self-reliance. Wealth insulates us from the challenges of life. A full checking account means food in the pantry and gas in the tank. A steady paycheck means new shoes when the old ones wear out and a warm, dry house when the weather is cold and wet. Money buys health insurance, which pays for doctors and nurses and scans and tests and pills and hospital visits, all of which keep us healthy and strong…for now. But take it all away and where would we turn? If you lost your job and your bank account and your portfolio and your house and your family and your friends and your health and you had absolutely nothing, where would you turn for help? To whom would your cries for mercy be directed?
Whether we know it or not, we depend on God. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we depend on God. No matter how carefully we insulate ourselves from the cold, bare, hungry neediness of life, we need God to get us through another day. We need God to save us. And, when we forget that, when we think that we can do it on our own, we find ourselves on the outside of God’s kingdom, wondering why the doors are shut and locked and why no one will let us in. We cannot afford to forget that only God can save us. But, in a life built on the security and stability that we think we have provided, how will we remember that?
What is the one thing in your life that makes you feel secure? What’s the one thing that gives you the illusion of self-reliance? Here you are, at the feet of Jesus, and, whatever it is, that’s the one thing he’s telling you to give up. And it’s not because he wants you to suffer but because he loves you and he wants you to live with him in God’s kingdom and he knows that the only way you’ll ever get there is if you learn to depend on God alone. What is your one thing? What must you give up in order to know what it means to rely on God as if your life—both here and in heaven—depended on it? Is it strength? Is it health? Is it family? Is it friends? For most of us, it’s wealth, but for all of us, it’s something.
You can’t get into heaven until you learn to depend on God and God alone. With mortals, it is impossible, but not with God. With God, all things are possible. What is it that you must give up in order to believe those words with all of your heart? What is Jesus telling you to let go of? And will you do it, or will you walk away grieving?
What do you think: is heaven worth it? If not, there’s the door.