Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Invitation to Intimacy

St. Antony, Abbot in Egypt
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

In Mark 10:17-21, Jesus offers a profound and challenging invitation to a would-be disciple. A man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus replies with a summary of the Law: “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.’” Quickly in his mind, the man runs through Jesus’ checklist, crossing off each one of the obligations as having been fulfilled, and says, “Teacher, I have kept all of these since my youth.” But there was more to it than that. Something had brought this faithful man to Jesus in the first place. He knew that something was missing, and Jesus shows him that it was something big, something demanding, something terrible.

With love for the man in his heart, Jesus looks at him and says, “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.” Even before we get to those words, we know what comes next. Perhaps that is because we are familiar with the story, or perhaps it is because we recognize our own limitations and project them onto the man. Mark tells us that he “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Isn’t that our response, too? When confronted with the enormous cost of discipleship, whether financial or otherwise, aren’t we grieved? When we encounter any of the stories in which Jesus tells us to sell everything that we have and give it away or hate our mother and father and brother and sister or take up our cross or even give up our own life for the sake of the gospel, don’t we wish he would move on to something else? Isn’t the cost of discipleship always more than we are prepared to give?

Today, however, I hear a new voice within this familiar story. Today is the feast of St. Antony, who served as an abbot in Egypt in the fourth century, and I cannot help but notice that the gospel lesson appointed for his feast stops short of the man’s sorrowful reaction to Jesus’ demand that he sell all that he has and give it away to the poor. We know what comes next. We know that the man will not be able to fulfill what is being asked of him. But, today, we never get there. We stop with verse 21—with Jesus’ invitation to the man to take that next and essential step—and, because of that, I hear in this exchange new opportunity for me and my own faith.

When he was eighteen years old, Antony and his younger sister were orphaned, and they found themselves unexpectedly responsible for caring for their family’s large estate. Six months later, when he heard the story of the rich man and Jesus in Mark’s gospel account, Antony immediately gave all of their land to the villagers and sold most of his possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor. Still, for Antony, this was not enough. After further meditation, he decided to sell absolutely everything he owned, place his sister in a house for poor, unmarried women, and become an anchorite or solitary ascetic. He spent the next twenty years living alone in a cave, praying and meditating on God’s word, before emerging to found a primitive sort of monastery that was little more than a collection of individual cells for other solitary ascetics.[1]

Antony’s life was completely and totally dedicated to God. He was free from the burdens and distractions of money and relationships. He gave up not only his possessions but also his ties to family and virtually all interactions with the rest of the world. As far as was humanly possible, he sought to remove anything that might stand in the way of his relationship with God. He had heard Jesus call him to seek unencumbered intimacy with the Lord, and, rather than dwell on why that could not happen, he answered Jesus’ call and gave up all that he had in order to pursue that most important of relationships.

I do not know about you, but I am not prepared to sell all that I have and take a vow of poverty. I am not willing to leave my wife and children behind in order to pursue an unencumbered relationship with God. Partly that is because I have not heard Jesus call me to do those things, but, even if I had, I doubt my ability to answer that call. I am too deeply attached to the comforts that my wealth provides. I am too fond of the comfort that my family gives. But, today, as I hear Jesus inviting me to sell everything I have and follow him, I stop short of my inabilities and, instead, ask God to give me the strength and courage and resolve to do whatever it is that God is asking of me. Instead of saying, “No, that’s too hard,” I pray that God will help me eliminate everything that gets in the way of the pure, dedicated relationship with God that God is calling me to pursue. I know my flesh is weak, but I pray that God will make my spirit willing. As Jesus said to the disciples when they asked their master about this difficult teaching, “With mere mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
Perhaps God is calling you to sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor. Perhaps God is calling you to give up your life as you know it and dedicate yourself to God’s service in a new and radical way. Perhaps it’s something dramatic and huge, or maybe it’s something small and quiet, but I can guarantee that, whatever it is, God’s call will come as a challenge. Do not fall into the trap of dismissing God’s invitation because it seems too difficult. Yes, following Jesus is hard. Yes, being a disciple is costly. Indeed, it will cost you everything that you have. But don’t allow yourself to become paralyzed by the magnitude of that sacrifice. Instead, pray that God will give you the strength to say yes—one day at a time, one step at a time, one sacrifice at a time.

[1] Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Church Publishing: 2006, 130.

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