Sermon notes: Jesus and the rich young man

SERMON NOTES, PROPER 23, YEAR B (Preached at St. Matthew’s/Warson Woods, 10/14/12)

It sometimes seems to me that we hear as many misquotations of the Bible as accurate quotations.

There’s the ghastly false platitude “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear,” which is a misquotation of 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (Quite a difference, isn’t there?)

There’s “The lion shall lie down with the lamb,” which misquotes Isaiah 11:6, but at least retains its spirit: “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.”

And then there’s “Money is the root of all evil.” By shortening what 1 Timothy 6:10 actually says – “The love of money is the root of all evil” – that particular misquotation seriously misses the point of what the author of the epistle is trying to tell us.

And that brings us to the gospel reading for today.

It’s one of the most poignant stories in the gospels. A righteous, rich young man, who has always lived his life according to the precepts of the Law, comes to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus looks into the man’s heart and sees his goodness. He tells him, “Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.”

The rich young man is shocked by the very idea. He can’t bear to part with his possessions; he is too attached to his money and his belongings and his position in the world. He goes away, grieving, and Jesus tells the disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

St. Francis of Assisi, who was a rich young man himself, took this seriously. When we think about him – as on his just-observed his feast day – we usually think about his recognition of animals as our fellow creatures, and the gift that they are to us.

But long before he became a bird bath model or spoke of “Brother Wolf,” Francis lived large, drinking, playing sports, and going off as a soldier. After his spiritual awakening, he nursed lepers and gave all his money to beggars. When his father denounced him to the authorities, he stood in front of the bishop and everybody, renounced his inheritance and returned even the clothes that he wore, then went off to live in extreme poverty. Francis truly lived Jesus’s words.

Such capacity for sacrifice is given to few of us. I don’t think that kind of sacrifice is asked of most of us.

As in 1 Timothy, I also don’t think it’s the money per se that’s the real problem. Jesus had disciples who were well-to-do; those included, notably, that closet disciple the Pharisee Nicodemus, who was also a member of the powerful Sanhedrin, and the much-slandered-by-posterity Mary Magdalene, who was not a prostitute but a woman of substance who helped to support Jesus and the disciples with her wealth.

In the case of the rich young man, the real problem is his overwhelming love of money, and the love of the perks attached to money: comfort, recognition, the ability to do as you want when you want. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? As the noted St. Louis-based philosopher Mary Engelbreit has observed, “It’s good to be Queen.”

Other people are more attached to other things. The love of power often attaches itself to the love of money, but not always: We see the urge to control at every level, in every aspect of the human condition. That particular urge has nothing to do with wealth. It exists among the homeless; it’s all too present in religious communities.

Some people become obsessed with other things: with their collections, or with their cars, or with their online games, or with their pets, or with sports, or with food, or sex, or exercise.

In most cases, the problem is not in their wealth, or in their cheering for the Cardinals, or in their interest in restoring vintage Mustangs, or in collecting political memorabilia or English porcelain, or in running. The real problem is that we can become so intent on those things that we forget to lift our eyes to God.

I suspect that God wants us to hold all these things lightly. Indeed, Peter – typically – starts to point out to Jesus that the disciples who follow him have walked away from their homes and families and trades. Jesus knows where he’s going with that, though, and interrupts: “No matter what you’ve given up, you will receive much more, along with eternal life.”

This is the season of stewardship. Every autumn, with the turning of the leaves, we’re asked to give of our treasure – and, if the stewardship campaign is being run properly, of our time and talent as well – to support the Church, so that the Church will be here to support us. That makes this a particularly good time to ponder the implications of this gospel reading.

Chapter 20 of Exodus lays out the Ten Commandments. The very first one is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of bondage; you shall have no other gods before me.” The danger is that our wealth, or our hobbies, or our passions will put us back into bondage, will become other gods for us.

So we can enjoy what we have, but always remember to share it. We can give guidance where it’s needed, but not try to play the dictator. We can follow our interests, but remember that there’s more to claim our attention.

In that way, we won’t be chained to those things; they will serve us, instead of the other way around. In that way, we can be free, free to go when Christ says, “Follow me.”

Lord, help us to hold the things of this world lightly, and bring us in time to your heavenly realm, remembering that “In God, all things are possible.” Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes, Good Friday: Walking with Jesus

Jean-Jacques Tissot: What Our Savior Saw from the CrossSERMON NOTES, GOOD FRIDAY, April 6, 2012 ∙

Today, Jesus’s long journey to the Cross has come to its end.

We have been walking with him on his painful road for the last 40 days, in the Sunday Gospel readings, in the daily office readings, and in our own Lenten disciplines.

From week to week, we have followed the story: from Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the wilderness, to his teaching his disciples about his future suffering. We have seen him enter Jerusalem in triumph and drive the moneychangers out of the Temple. We have watched as he celebrates the Passover with his friends, and then as he is sold to the authorities by one of them.

The arc of the last day is particularly dramatic. Jesus goes quickly from hero, hailed by the crowd, to criminal, denounced by the mob. And it all happens so fast.

From the supper in the upper room, to the garden where he goes to pray, there is a sense of foreboding. Then he is betrayed, arrested, denied, taken to trial, scourged, condemned to death, all with bewildering speed. It cannot have been more than 12 hours from the time he was taken in the garden until he was nailed to the cross between two bandits.

By now, a little after noon, Jesus has been hanging on the cross for just over three hours. His followers have scattered, afraid of meeting the same horrible fate; only a few of the faithful, most of them women, remain to watch their Lord to the end. His earthly journey is nearly at an end.

Crucifixion has a long and loathsome history in the annals of human savagery. It was a regular feature in the Mediterranean world from the 6th century before Christ until the 4th century AD. For tyrants, it was the perfect combination of public humiliation and unspeakable torture.

Crucifixion assured that the victim would experience the maximum suffering possible, often over a period of several days. It thus had the additional benefit of providing passersby with a vivid incentive to toe the line. The Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero called it “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.” I’m always impressed when the ancient Romans denounce a practice as too cruel.

He added that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” Indeed, crucifixion was a punishment for slaves and criminals. To be crucified was to lose whatever status you had in that highly stratified world.

No wonder the apostle Paul found the cross a tough sell to Jews and Greeks alike.

The noted philosopher Mel Gibson has been quoted, in justifying the violence in his film “The Passion of the Christ,” as saying that no one else has ever suffered as much as Jesus Christ suffered. Not only is that untrue – many thousands suffered as much or more as Jesus suffered – but it misses the point.

This is a part of the path that Christ walked, a part of the miracle of God humbling himself to be born not just as a human but as one of low rank, and to die as the lowest. Born in a stable, extending the hand of love to the unclean, feeding the hungry and washing feet, even dying like a slave, Jesus consistently took the part of the poor, the weak, the despised. He died, as we will die, but in dying he gave us life.

We have been walking with Jesus all through Lent, all through Holy Week. In this hour, we watch his last agonies, and hear his final words from the cross.

We sometimes doubt and question God; and even Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God, could cry out in his pain, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even in his pain, Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We see the grief of his disciples, the women and men who had the courage to stay with him to the end. We see the courage of Joseph of Arimathea, who dared to ask Pilate for the body, and took it down from the cross for burial, and Nicodemus, who once came by night to see Jesus, from fear, but now openly assisted him.

We feel the faith of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses, who watched as their Lord was buried, noting the spot. When all seemed lost, on that darkest of days, they still did not desert him.

We have been walking with Jesus all through Lent, but will we continue to walk with him when Lent is over? We will be freed of our Lenten disciplines, but will we remember why we took them on? We will celebrate the Paschal feast, but will we remember Christ’s humility and his love and sacrifice for us? Will we remain as faithful as those who watched and stayed?

Loving God, when the darkness of this day is past, keep us ever mindful of what our Lord suffered for our sakes, and ever walking in your way in faith and truth, that when our own trials are past we may join you in eternal light. This we ask in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Doubting Thomas, journalist

Preached April 11, 2010, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, St. Louis

The patron saint of journalists, according to the lists maintained by the Roman Catholic Church, is Francis de Sales, a bishop during the Counter-Reformation of the early 17th century. He got the nod as patron of journalists for his zeal in handing out copies of his sermons to potential converts. Maybe we should narrow his job description to “Patron saint of opinion page writers.”

While it never hurts to have a patron saint, and while we journalists certainly need all the help we can get, I think the Church passed over its most logical candidate. If journalism has a basic defining principle, it’s the old editor’s advice to the rookie reporter: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Take nothing for granted; double-check every fact; and if you possibly can, go and see for yourself.

Clearly, the saint who best exemplifies that axiom is Thomas the Apostle.

Thomas has been served up as a bad example for nearly two millennia. He didn’t believe the other disciples when they came to him with the story that Jesus had appeared to them in the solid flesh and spoken with them. He’s been saddled with the name of “Doubting Thomas” for wanting to see the evidence with his own eyes, instead of taking the others’ word concerning a frankly dubious-sounding tale.

That seems unfair; after all, the other disciples didn’t believe Mary Magdalene’s account of finding the empty tomb and meeting Jesus in the garden until they saw him again for themselves. But it’s Thomas who got stuck with the unfortunate nickname.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” So says Thomas. He sounds like a lot of the people with whom I work in the Post-Dispatch’s newsroom.

Thomas’s other reportorial qualities include a certain element of cynicism, tenacity, and a tendency to question more closely than an interviewee might like. Jesus announces that he wants to return to Galilee to see Mary and Martha and their ailing brother Lazarus. The other disciples point out that this might be a bad idea, because some of his opponents there had recently tried to kill him. Thomas says, “Let’s go too, and die with him.”

Later, when Jesus talks about going to prepare a place for his followers, and that they know the way, Thomas is the one who says, “We don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” His literal-minded approach to the whole issue of alleged sightings of the Risen Lord should not come as a surprise.

But Jesus appears again the next time the disciples gather. This time Thomas is there, and Jesus challenges him to check him out. “Put your finger here; put your hand in my side.” The gospel records Thomas only as saying, “My Lord and my God!” and doesn’t mention any anatomical exploration. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually did it. After all, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Jesus responds with a journalist would call the “money quote” from this particular gospel reading: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”

He’s right: Faith is a blessing. But Thomas was one of Jesus’s most faithful followers. He declared his willingness to go and die with his teacher when the other disciples wanted him to keep a low profile; he was there at the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane.

One of the earliest and best-substantiated traditions of the Church says that after the Ascension Thomas traveled east to bring the gospel to India. The “Thomas Christians” are still there today. If he could see all that he saw during Jesus’s public ministry on Earth and still question what the others told him, then we may surely be forgiven our own doubts now.

The historian and author Diarmaid MacCulloch writes, in his just-published book “Christianity: The First 3,000 Years,” “Doubt is fundamental to religion. One human being sees holiness in someone, something, somewhere: where is the proof for others?”

Doubt may be fundamental, and doubts may be inevitable, but doubts by themselves do not close the door to faith. Jesus may not appear to each of us in the flesh, but the offer to deeply probe his wounds, acquired on our behalf, is open in other ways. We have the truths – literal and otherwise – of the gospels, and the gift of the Holy Spirit’s help in receiving and understanding those truths, if we will only ask.

Jesus’s response to Thomas is sometimes read as a smackdown: Oh, you only believe because you see for yourself. I think it’s the opposite: Christ offers himself to us in love, acknowledges our doubts, and meets us on our own ground. We have his promise, and it has been experienced and given witness by numberless Christians over the centuries.

And Thomas’s response to Jesus’s words in the upper room may be the best, most succinct testimony in the entire New Testament: “My Lord and my God!”

Lord, help us through our own doubts to see you and know your love for ourselves through the eyes of faith. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller