Scripture: Mark 10:17-31
Given on 02/04/2018
On July 4th, 1854, seeking to leave behind the existence that he had known, in search of life in its purest form, life in its essence, Henry David Throreau began a two year experiment by moving to a piece of property owned by his friend and mentor, the author, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The property, located on Walden pond, some three miles from his long-time family homestead, outside of Concord, Massachusetts, represented a chance to break away from the trappings of the civilized life. Inspired by the need to strip away the stuff of life and delve deep into his own practice of transcendentalism and meditation, Thoreau spent two years living on the small piece of property exploring the meaning of life and seeking to know what it was that drove humankind to exist in the manner that it did. At the end of his experiment, he wrote his classic, Walden. Perhaps the greatest discovery he made in his time away from society, perhaps the most important point to come away from the book having learned, perhaps the most important point in speaking about the passage of scripture that we are looking at today, comes when he discovers, when he realizes that all of life is a struggle. But that, for most of us, that struggle is spoken about only in the quiet of our souls. And so he writes, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That is, the mass of people, the whole of people want to know that they matter, that they are cared for and about, that they are loved. And that is, I think, the ultimate question asked by the rich, young man in our scripture passage for this morning. This man, with youth and resources, still finds himself stuck and empty, seeking a love and security that has thus far eluded him.
This is a familiar passage of scripture. A story as old as time with a familiar quotable passage about a camel and the eye of a needle. Nothing Jesus says could be anymore clear than that and so it is, I think, that the impetus upon hearing this passage is to glaze over, to tune out, to think that there is nothing left for the Spirit to say through these words. And yet we have to believe that the spirit speaks today, calling us to new understandings of the old words, to new understandings of old ideas, to new understandings of justice, and love, and kindness, and peace. And so let’s again try to hear the call of the spirit over the din of the world.
And in doing so, I’ve found that when I listen to readings from scripture, I try to imagine which role I would play were the passage a drama playing out in front of me. Would I be the protagonist upon whom the primary action of the story is acted out? Would I be a witness in the crowd, taking note of what I see and observing the drama play out like an audience member at a play or a symphony? Would I be the person who fixes the problem, alleviates the fear and discontent? Or, more likely, would I be the person who has a problem and is seeking relief from that problem. In this way, this story from the gospel of Mark offers several different vantage points from which to view the events described by the author. Because this young man stands in the presence of the great teacher, the source of all life, and he just can’t seem to take that last step that we are all quick to assume that we would take. And so it is in this story that we encounter this young person of means and we (or at least I) respond in a negative manner. Perhaps it is also the perfection that he believes that he possesses, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Being good Calvinists, we know that such a perfection is an impossibility and so we react with a degree of incredulity. Perhaps it is the feeling that this person has the great fortune is standing next to this enigmatic figure of Jesus whom we seek to follow some two-thousand years later, of being invited to leave everything behind and seemingly becoming one of Jesus’s inner circle only to allow his possessions to stand in between himself and the great teacher standing before him. Perhaps it is just sheer jealousy that we feel when we look at him. He has youth, he has wealth, he has his seemingly unlimited potential for what he can do with the rest of his life and he seems to throw it all away in hopes of maintaining the security of his wealth, of his stuff. And yet, perhaps, this young man, this young man of means has given us a glimpse into our own struggles with life, our own struggles for meaning, our own understandings of fairness in a world that too often seems unfair.
The man comes to Jesus, and immediately we see that he kneels down before the rabbi as one would do in that time in the midst of someone powerful and honorable. And in his actions we see that he sees Jesus as the one who might give clarity to this man on this journey. “Good teacher,” he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And just like that we see that the young man is dealing with an issue that plagues all of humankind and each person in this place today, the struggle for permanence in a world of impermanence. He is looking for security in a world that often tears the faithful down, that often falls away when we need it most, in a world that so often seems to be heading down the road to chaos and brokenness and he looks to the one man who he thinks can relieve him of his worry, and he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus’s response brings greater clarity and greater peril into the man and his quandary. “Why do you call me good? No one but God alone is good.” And here again, we must wonder what the man is experiencing. We must wonder if he thinks he has come all the way to seek out and find this great teacher and Jesus’s response must have sounded like, the answer you seek, the question have, I don’t have the answer either. None is good but God. But he continues, “you know what is written, “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.'” And here we see Jesus is establishing a kinship with the young man. Here Jesus is drawing back to a mutually held tradition where the commandments of Moses, the ten commandments, form the basis for the Jewish worldview and system of ethics. But the man replies, “but Jesus, since my earliest childhood have I kept all these commandments. Since I could remember I have followed the Jewish ethical system, since my youth I have sought to do what it right and yet, I still feel empty.”
One spring break, when I was in high school, we spent a week in a house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My Uncle’s wife, my Aunt Maurine’s family owned a pretty larger house sitting right along the coast just to the south of Kill Devil Hills. And because it was the week after Easter, it was not yet what one might call beach weather. It was warm enough to walk out on the sand with windbreakers on, maybe we would throw a frisbee or football, but after a few minutes, we would have to retreat back into the house to warm up and enjoy the view of the coastline and the water from the comfort of the living room. And so it was, I imagine, as a way of staving off cabin fever that Aunt Mo brought out something like a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. As I recall it was of like the greatest feats of human designed structures, the Parthenon, the Colosseum, the Washington Monument, and the structure that we completed last, the Eiffel Tower. Now, there is something that you should know about me, I hate jigsaw puzzles. I’m not talking about the mammoth ones like the one that we did over that Spring Break on the Outer Banks. No, I hate all of them. I hate the concept. Seamus has 9 piece Paw Patrol jigsaw puzzle that I hate. One of the things that I have learned about myself is that I possess almost no spacial skills. Like, at all. So the idea that I could piece together two matching pieces that are both brown solely because they are both brown rests somewhere on the other side of absurd. Like I said, Seamus has a 9 piece Paw Patrol puzzle that I swear he can put together quicker than I can and so spending the week doing this exceedingly large puzzle was not my idea of a good time. But bit-by-bit we got it together, mostly with the help of everyone else with me playing the part of the blind pig finding the acorn every now and then. And so it was that we got to the Eiffel tower and went to put the last piece in only to find that we did not have it. It seemed to have vanished into thin air. We had no indicator as to where it had gone. Aunt Mo assured us that all the pieces were there, but when it came time to drop the last piece on the bottom observation deck of the Eiffel Tower into place, it was nowhere to be found. Almost immediately, a morose feeling overtook all those who had been working on the puzzle. During the day we would search for the lost piece throughout the house and at night, it would call like a Sirens’ song to all of us that we lacked one thing. It weighed down on us like a ton of bricks. But, I am happy to report that just as the ton of bricks descended on us upon the loss of the piece, so, too, was it removed from us when my uncle, sweeping out under one of the rugs in the living room, exclaimed, “I found it!” Even for me who hates those things, the feeling of Elysian peace that overcame all of us as the final piece was dropped into place, was overwhelming. And I just wonder if that was the sort of experience that the rich, young ruler was seeking to have when he came to Jesus and laid before him the deepest quandaries in his soul, because just as he offered the query that was in the depths of his very being, so, also, had he asked the question that dwells within most of our hearts, just like that he has asked the question. “Jesus,” he seems to be saying, for as long as I can remember, I have sought to do the right thing, to be the right person, to say and do the right things, and it has not brought me the peace that I seek. And we can understand that, can’t we? We can understand that even when we seek to do the right things, even when we seek to say the right things, to offer words of encouragement and hope in even the darkest of circumstances, even then, we do not always have the sense of peace that surpasses all understanding. And so, the man, comes to Jesus and he says in a sense, Jesus since the beginning of my life, since as long ago as I remember, I have done everything I know to be right, everything I know to be in accordance with the rules of my religious community, and still I feel empty, I still feel like I am not loved. Like I am missing that single piece of the puzzle that will bring the whole of the picture together.
And this next part is beautiful. It shows the grace of the savior. It shows the love of God, the sustenance of God. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” The moment, shared between the one who was seeking and the one who is to be sought, transcends all space and time, transcends all the stuff of the world, all the heartache and pain, all the quiet struggle and desperation. Jesus, looking at him, loved him. As if to say, you are so close. As if to say, just one more thing, one more step and you will know the peace that surpasses all understanding, you will know the love and forgiveness of God established at the beginning of time and still coursing through the veins of the world, you will know what you have been searching for all this time. “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.” And in a second, the moment of sheer elation comes to a crashing halt for the young man who is standing before Jesus. In a second, the journey that had taken all life seems to be the unfinished, raw edge of an unraveling fabric. In a second, the last step of the long march seems impossible. And sheer elation turns to sadness. He lacked one thing but that one thing was everything. Jesus had offered the young man a choice. He could strip himself of the stuff of life and discover the love of God, the acceptance of God, just as he was, and then begin to share in the ministry of Jesus. Share in the journey with Jesus, or he could return to his old life. Surround himself with his things, surround himself with the stuff of the old order of the world, the part of the world that says, take yourself and keep yourself safe, take your stuff and build up huge walls around yourself, because it takes too courageous a leap to believe that in God is found true acceptance, in God is found true, wholeness, in God is found love. And rest. All his life this man had been searching, searching, searching, for something that would satisfy the feelings of isolation that he felt, the feelings of uncertainty and desperation that he had felt and in a split second all of that could go away, replaced by true faith, replaced by forever. Beginning now. But he lacked one thing.
In a little over a week, we will begin our Lenten journey together. We will spend some 40 days staring deeply into the innermost depths of our souls and asking, what are we missing, what piece is still lost, what do we lack? In that time, we will journey together even though none of us has all the answers, even though we don’t always even know where the path leads and yet we will be always guided by the question upon which the whole of time and space is built, what do we lack? And we won’t come up with the answer immediately. It won’t appear like a puzzle piece that is found under a rug. It will take time, it will take prayer, it takes sitting in the silence of the moment and honestly asking, “what do we lack?” I can’t tell you what that answer will be. For the rich, young man, it was his stuff. He couldn’t see love, he couldn’t see acceptance in the stuff of the world, in the riches of the world. Likewise, for each of us, it is some thing. It is some thing that you have placed as the most important thing in your life but does not bring you the wholeness, the peace, the grace of God in the way that you need. I can’t tell you what it is but I can help you figure it out. I can’t tell you what it is but we can walk together and explore together. We can journey, we can struggle, we can hold each other up. One in the spirit. One in the Lord. And as we go further, we can begin to ask what is it that our community lacks. What is it that keeps our community from being the community that God intends it to be? What is it that keeps our community from being a community that wholly embraces God’s peace and justice for all its people? We are on a journey together. Day-by-day, hour-by-hour, moment-by-moment, we are heading towards the realm of God, the peace of God, the love of God. Together, as a community, as a family, as a church. May we walk hand-in-hand from the shadow of the cross and into the light of the new day. Glory Be to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among all God’s peoples. Alleluia, amen.