A Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 10, 2021

By: David H. May, Rector


“…for God all things are possible.”

The young man who comes to Jesus today is one of the most beguiling and attractive characters in all of the Gospels. His wealth could easily have led to pursue a less noble life than the one he describes. He’s a good man who has learned the commandments of God and lived by them since he was a youth. There’s nothing about him that sounds like a stick in the mud moralist – you know the kind of person who is overly interested in the speck in your eye while blissfully indifferent to the log in their own eye. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity when he says he has kept the commandments faithfully since he was a boy. He certainly doesn’t strike Jesus as a self-righteous braggart. No, Jesus looks at him—a young man, just coming into his own as a person wanting to set his compass to point him towards that which is of most, towards those things which will abide, eternal things. And Jesus looks on him and loves him. The Lord didn’t use words, but whoever was there and remembered what happened that day and passed on the memory saw it in the Lord’s face—he loved him. And no words were needed.

But the young man’s first question to Jesus—what must I do to inherit eternal life?—shows that he is on the wrong path. An inheritance—money, property, your name even—con only be given. You can’t do anything to force an inheritance. You can’t force your mother to re-write her will so that you will inherit her wedding ring and your sister will not. Oh, I suppose one could contrive a scheme to set that in motion. But supposing you succeeded? It would never be a freely given gift, a blessing, an inheritance. How could that wedding ring every really sparkle on your finger after acquiring it that way?

An inheritance is a gift given: a legacy of loving loyalty.

For the rich young man, it is about the money, his money. But it also isn’t. Money is given and received, wealth and treasures are passed around all the time without having the least to do with where Jesus is trying to point this young man. There is no condemnation of the rich, or exultation of the poor anywhere in this text. But there is a problem with what this young man thinks money can do for him. And, I suspect, he is used to it doing a lot for him.

I think we are all of us so used to there being an exchange rate, a quid pro quo—in so many aspects of the way we live our lives. Like the young man, we can miss this needle’s eye-size invitation from Jesus. It’s not just goods and services for money that shape our views. It happens most sadly in our relationships and in our dealings with one another where oh so subtly we exchange emotional legal tender for approval, trying to earn what cannot be earned. But that doesn’t seem to stop us from trying.

We hear that everyone and everything has a price. But actually, no. Not everything. Especially and most importantly, not the things that matter most. We are all beggars when it comes to those things that matter most.

The young man reminds me of a friend I knew in college who fell head over heels in love for a girl. And she didn’t know he was alive. “What can I do to make her notice me, to know that I’m alive!” he moaned. He wanted, actually, more than just to be noticed. He wanted her to feel for him what he felt for her. And she never did. Never. Whatever he tried…well looking back, it would have been easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for my friend to make that girl love him.

Which gets us back to this virtuous, earnest young man before Jesus. Again, this is not a harsh indictment of the wealthy. It’s not just the rich who can’t storm the gates and inherit the things of life that are eternal. Neither can the poor. We’re all none-too-slender camels when it comes to a heavenly inheritance. It is impossible, at least for us to command or accomplish.

There is no exchange rate, no legal tender to inherit the look on Jesus’ face when he looked in the young man and loved him. The young man should have followed that love. But it wasn’t to be. It was impossible for him.

But this is where the Good News can be heard most clearly, when things are impossible on our own.

No, it is impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

No, it is impossible to buy and sell, to earn or deserve love and approval.

No, it is impossible to gain an inheritance.

No, these things are impossible for us.

But not for God. For God, all things are possible.

The last meeting of the confirmation class I was a part of when I was twelve, the last Sunday before the Bishop came for confirmation, the rector of the parish came and joined us for class. He was there to instruct us on the Eucharist and especially how we were to receive communion. Maybe you received instruction too when you were young. But maybe not. So let me just share what Archie Stapleton, the rector of Otey Parish in Sewanee, Tennessee told us. Archie was normally loud and gregarious. But he sat with us that day in his black suite and spoke quietly, soberly, reverently. He said ‘first when you come to the communion rail to receive communion, remember you have been forgiven (“for the Lord has put your sins away”), so take heart. Whatever it was, even if it was pretty awful, the Lord has forgiven you in his great mercy. So forget it, and for his sake, move on! When you kneel, Archie said, hold out your left hand – the one nearest your heart – palm up. Then put your right hand, palm up, across your left to form the Greek letter chi – the first letter of Christ. Your hands are now a fitting throne for Christ, he said. Hold them out open and empty. God will fill them with his Son’s life. Please, Archie said, don’t ever reach for the Body of Christ with your fingers to take it like it’s a potato chip. If you do, I’ll want to pass you by, and I may! We can only receive the grace of Christ’s body; we can’t take it. Hold your hands out empty.

Archie was trying to show that all of us are beggars with no currency to buy favor from God. And isn’t that what Jesus was inviting the rich man to become when he urged him to sell all his possessions and give that to the poor and then come follow him. When we see that our hands are finally empty, because we have ceased to clutch to riches and possessions that can’t buy us what we need most. Then our hands will be empty and when they are empty, they are finally free to receive. Then camels like us, glide through needles’ eyes with room to spare, and behold, we are inheritors indeed of the loving gaze of the One who we are called to follow. Amen.