Here’s my sermon from last Sunday at St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, Maryland, near Baltimore. Regular readers of my past sermons will notice certain common themes. The delivery had some changes from this text but I’m not going to make them. You should have been there!
(And I don’t think I made this clear enough in my sermon but I have a great deal of admiration for the friend I mention in here and her family, even if it sometimes seems like I might be coming down a bit hard on them.)
11 October 2009
St. Peter’s, Ellicott City, MD
Let us pray.
Dear God: did you really mean it when you said give everything to the poor? Amen.
There are lots of very difficult passages in the Bible, lots of passages that make us take a deep breath and think, “It can’t possibly mean that, now, can it?” This morning’s Gospel is one such passage. The rich man comes to Jesus. He wants to know what he can do to inherit eternal life. He’s already been following the Old Testament laws. He thinks he’s in pretty good shape. As I imagine it, he’s just looking for confirmation from this new and great teacher that he’s on that straight and narrow path that leads to heaven. But Jesus’ answer stuns him: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Then later, after the rich young man has gone away, Jesus continues, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
It is these kinds of passages that the author of Hebrews must be thinking of when he writes in this morning’s Epistle, “The word of God is…sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” This sort of teaching from Jesus cuts right to the core of our lives.
There are a couple of possible reactions to hearing this morning’s Gospel. One is to say exactly what Peter says in response to Jesus: “I already did leave everything behind! What do I get?” If you’ve done that, excellent. You can tune me out. If you haven’t, keep listening.
Because another possible response is to say, “Well, he can’t really mean that.” I think that’s a common tendency with a lot of other difficult passages in the Bible, especially those tough Old Testament passages. It’s easy to say, “Surely, it doesn’t mean that!” and move on. We shouldn’t do that with the Old Testament and we definitely should not do it with the red-letter words of Christ himself.
A final possible reaction is to say, “Well, I’m not really all that rich. Surely Jesus wasn’t talking about people like me.” Let me say in response that for the last two years I was a missionary of the Episcopal Church in a community called Itipini in South Africa. “Itipini” means “at the dump” and it is a shantytown built on the site of a landfill. It was built there so that its residents could scavenge off the refuse. They make their homes out of pieces of tin, tarps, old car parts, milk cartons, rocks, mud, literally whatever works. There is no running water or electricity. When it rains, not only the roofs but also the walls leak. When I first went to Itipini, I had previously been an AmeriCorps volunteer with a small stipend and before that a student with a very part-time job. I thought I had no money. In comparison to the people in Itipini, however, I was that rich man who approached Jesus this morning.
So what do we do with this passage? What does Jesus mean? The short answer is I don’t know.
I’m currently a student at Yale and they teach you there that when you’re confronted with a difficult question or boxed into a corner in a conversation, the best thing to do is change the subject. So I want to ask instead, What would happen if we gave away everything we had? Why would Jesus want the rich young man to do such a thing?
To answer that question, I want to tell you a little more about Itipini and about a friend of mine named Vuyelwa, for short.
Itipini is on the outskirts of a much larger town called Mthatha. During apartheid Mthatha was the capital of a neglected part of the country called the Transkei. This was a section of territory the white government nominally “set aside” for black people. That way, the white government could act as if it was giving some black people self-determination and local control in their own land when really they were just dumping them in a part of the country they wanted nothing to do with. As a result, Mthatha and the surrounding region are decades behind the rest of the country in development. Even today, Mthatha has a bad reputation in South Africa. It’s said to be dirty, dangerous, and full of gangsters. There’s a national highway that goes right through Mthatha and when you ask someone from, say, Cape Town or Johannesburg if they’ve ever been to Mthatha, they say, “Oh, yes, I’ve been to Mthatha – I mean, I’ve been through Mthatha.” They might sometimes add, “I’ve driven through Mthatha with my windows rolled up, my doors locked, and a look of terror on my face.” If this is what Mthatha is like, you can imagine that Itipini, the community on its garbage dump, is even worse.
Partway through my two years in Mthatha I met Vuyelwa. Vuyelwa was born and raised in Mthatha and I met her because she was interested in volunteering in Itipini with me. Now usually when a new volunteer showed up in Itipini, I would give them a tour, walking among the shacks, driving around that section of town, pointing out the government housing built for people like those who live in Itipini and other sights of interest. But with Vuyelwa, I did it in a sort of half-hearted way. After all, she had been born and bred in Mthatha and lived there much longer than me. But as I showed her around, it became increasingly clear to me that although she had lived in Mthatha for 20 years, she had never visited any of the places I was showing her, places that I visited every day.
Vuyelwa’s family has some money – not a lot, but enough that they don’t have to worry about the next day’s meal, that they can eat meat with every meal, which people in Itipini can’t, that they can afford the fees at the good schools, and, most of all, that they never have to travel near places like Itipini. I realized that for Vuyelwa her family’s relative wealth had created a situation in which she never had to interact with the poor people I saw every day. The Mthatha she knew was completely different to the Mthatha that I experienced.
How true is this situation for us? I used to live on the south side of Chicago, the poorest part of the city. I know that for many of the people who worked inside the business district in Chicago, the south side was a whole other world to them, one they never touched. They got off the El before it went that far south. When they had to leave the city, they got on the interstate that went through the south side without ever actually encountering it in any meaningful way. I have heard this is true in other cities in this country as well, for instance just down the road in Washington, D.C. – the capital of the richest country on earth surrounded by some of that country’s poorest neighbourhoods and with almost no non-criminal interaction between the two.
Our wealth then allows us to create a space where we don’t have to worry about interacting with people who are poorer or less fortunate than us. We know this was true in the Bible. When Jesus was traveling from town to town, beggars and lepers and the blind cried out to him. Oftentimes, it was his followers who tried to quiet those people and put up walls between those excluded people and Christ in the middle of the crowd. In Mthatha, there are divides between the rich and poor, families like Vuyelwa’s that can live their lives without meaningfully thinking about the daily life of poorer people. In our lives, I am sure we can identify walls of our own, walls between the races, walls between rich and poor, walls based on sexual orientation, even walls that sometimes cut right through a congregation and right down the middle of a pew. We know that Jesus’ ministry was all about the tearing down of walls, between men and women, rich and poor, insider and outsider, Jew and Gentile, alien and native, sick and healthy, and on and on. This, in fact, is a central feature of Christ’s ministry. Love your neighbour. And who is your neighbour? Everyone.
But before Jesus could break down those barriers between people on this earth, Jesus had to break down another major barrier, the barrier between the divine and the human. This is what we call the Incarnation, the decision by God to become human. I’m taking a course right now on the theological debates of the early church and while they didn’t agree on much, many of these early theologians did see a sharp gulf or wall between the realm of the divine and the realm of humans. The divine realm is perfect. That’s where God dwells. The human realm when God created it was perfect but our sinfulness and fallenness turned it into the imperfect creation it is today and so the fallen creation separated from the perfect realm of the Creator.
Now for a long time, God tried to do something to bridge this gap. This is what we call the Old Testament. God kept trying to use people in this fallen, human realm to improve Creation, to make it a little better, to draw people a little bit closer to God. For God, this must have been a frustrating process. Every person God choose to do God’s work turned out to be not quite perfect. People in the Old Testament, even the ones we admire and hold up as models today, had a habit of listening to what God said and then kind of veering off and doing their own thing. They’re human; they sin.
So God makes a momentous decision. Instead of working through us sinful and fallen humans, God decides to break down that barrier and come to the world and do the deed himself. This is why the Incarnation is so important. It represents the destruction of a monumental wall. As the Hebrews passage tells us, our high priest is not aloof and lofty from us but has been tested as we are by the trials of every day life and able to sympathize with our weakness precisely because he broke down that barrier and became like one of us.
To return to that question then, Why does Jesus want the man to give away everything he owns, I think Jesus sees that the wealth allows the man to wall off his life and be in a safe space where he doesn’t have to meaningfully interact with what goes on around him. He wants the man to break down those walls so he can see the world for what it is and truly be a part of it.
There’s a good way to summarize all these ideas about breaking down walls both between ourselves and between God and humans. To do that, let me return to a word I used a little earlier when I described myself as a missionary of the Episcopal Church. That word, missionary, is so contested and can be so difficult to hear. History is littered with examples of missionaries who did things on their mission that were far removed from the Gospel of Christ. Shortly before I left for South Africa, I read The Poisonwood Bible. Bad idea. The missionary character in that book embodies everything that is wrong with the history of mission, preaching a message not of grace and love but one of sin and law. I know all about missionaries who count their success by the number of people they baptized and how many churches they established. That has never appealed to me and yet I still cheerfully and proudly describe myself as a missionary.
A missionary, to state the obvious, has a mission. And who does that mission belong to? Does it belong to the missionary? To the missionary’s church? It is none of these, I think. Mission belongs to God. And God’s mission, throughout the course of history, has been the same: the restoration of right relationship between people and God and between people and each other. Bridge that divide that exists between us here on earth and God and break down those walls that divide us from our neighbours, me from you, us from them. The message of the Bible is that God longs for people to live in unity with one another and with God.
The questions missionary needs to ask, then, are these: Where is God’s mission around me and what role am I privileged to play in that mission? To ask it another way: Where is reconciliation needed and how can I help make it happen? Or, what walls can I help tear down? And if we ask the questions in this way, it becomes clear that missionaries are not only the people who move to Africa for a time. Not everyone or even most people are called to work overseas. We become missionaries by virtue of our belief in Christ, not by our decision to move across the world. The need for reconciliation is as strong and urgent in Ellicott City and Maryland as it is in a shantytown in Africa. The need takes a different shape but the question remains the same: what role are we privileged to play in God’s mission here and now?
This is all very easy to talk about but in fact is quite difficult. If reconciliation were an easy thing, everybody would be doing it. In Itipini, I encountered many situations in which reconciliation was so desperately needed and yet my ability to help bring it about was infinitesimal at best. Reconciliation can often seem impossible, as difficult, say, as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. This is a fallen and sinful world and God’s call to us to reconciliation is not an easy one.
But there’s a way forward and I want to return to that rich man one last time. We’ve seen how wealth can help us build walls around ourselves. We’ve seen that Jesus is calling us to make ourselves a little more open and a little more vulnerable to the world around us. The phrase I want to use to describe this is the same phrase that we use to describe what Jesus did – incarnation. Reconciliation begins when we choose to go to a new place in the world and simply exist. God used God’s immense power to choose to exist in an entirely new way, among humans. We have wealth and power and we must use it to exist in a new space. Sometimes that new space means getting up and moving from North America to a shantytown in South Africa. But sometimes going to that new space means simply exploring a different part of the town you’ve lived in your entire life, as my friend Vuyelwa did. Sometimes going to that new space simply means going down to the end of the pew after the service and talking to the person you’ve never met before. God’s mission of reconciliation requires of us an incarnational ministry. That means we have to simply be in a new and different way and in a new and different place. It is both a reassuringly simple and monumentally difficult task but it is at the centre of our Christian calling.
Now sometimes we’re not going to be successful. There are still walls that we let surround us. Maybe it’s a particular set of ideas or an ideology that convince us there is only one way to do things. Or it’s our own pride that tells us only we know what to do. Perhaps it is, in fact, wealth and comfort. Maybe it is our fear of rejection. In order for me to break down walls with you, one of us needs to reach out in hope and pray the other person responds the same way. That doesn’t always happen. Reconciliation takes two committed parties.
But we move forward in reconciliation confident in the knowledge not of our own failures but in the knowledge of God’s grace. It is that grace and power which allowed God to cross the divide that separated divine and human. It will be that grace and power that lets us move forward into new and different places. We move forward leaning on the grace of God, knowing that if we move forward in mission it will be God’s grace that will get that camel through the eye of a needle and you and me and all who join in the mission of God into heaven. It’s difficult and it can seem impossible. But the mission of God, which comes from God through us imperfect humans, is like all else possible only with God.