This past Sunday, I preached on the encounter of Jesus with "the rich young ruler" who asks him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" There was a lot to work with, even before I committed to working in the lesson from the Book of Job and the Epistle reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. What came out of that gumbo of texts was a serious bit of "preacher's yoga" for me as I prepped, and enough gravity tying me to the word in the early morning that my deacon asked me if I was feeling all right. Honestly, as much as preaching lifts me up, there are moments when the Word does weigh me down. Not in a bad way. I just feel it more intensely in those moments. God is getting ready to use me, and that heaviness has become a sign for me of what God is about to do through me. I now see it as an invitation to get my own stuff out of the way in order to let God do God's thing. Here is a rough recreation of that sermon, edited from memory while seeking to combine what I remember saying at the 8 and 10 AM services, respectively:
"In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit....
Don't you just love these Sundays? The sun is shining outside, there is a crisp bite to the air as the fall colors set themselves in the trees, and we get lessons that challenge us with their tough words. I would prefer to come in from that weather and encounter more reassuring words. Instead, we get Job pining for his day in court with God as the defendant, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews likening God's Word to a sword that divides soul from spirit, bone from marrow...and just when we think the challenges can't get any more demanding, we find out that in order to truly attain our inheritance to eternal life that we must give it all up and follow Jesus. Not just 10%. Not just a controlling share in our lives is God's price of investment. God asks that we not only be willing, but commit, to giving it all up and following Jesus as our teacher and Lord.
Ouch, but at least we get some model characters to work with. Job is our first companion in this journey. He actually doesn't have much of anything. There was a time when he did possess a great deal and had a supposedly happy and secure life. God had blessed him with many children, fruitful herds and fields and great wealth and health. He and his wife had it all...and then it was taken from him when God gave him over to Satan for tempting in order to settle a heavenly wager that Job was in fact only faithful because he was blessed. Afflict him, says Satan, and watch his fidelity cave in like wax melting in the hot sun. Our lesson today finds Job wondering when, really-if, he will get a chance to stand before God and have the chance to offer his testimony. He is certain of vindication, if only he could present his case. He wants that with most of his heart...and yet at the same time struggles because his ego, his spirit and his body have sustained so many blows. Even though he wants to find relief and recovery, he fears what he might discover about himself-and God-that he did not know before.
When bad things happen, when we experience challenge and struggle to cope in the face of life becoming too overwhelming to deal with, that is when we offer up our most passionate invocation of God's intercession in our lives. When things are going well, we think we can pretty much manage it on our own...but when the pit of despair rises up, what then? Misery, really. Fear...perhaps anger? "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?* and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?" Those words of Psalm 22 are not just reserved exclusively for Jesus as he hangs on the cross. They are words that you and I utter often in our lives when threat, worry, loss and pain pour into and over us.
That's when I need a God who is mercy and love...at least, that is what I tell myself in those dark moments. Where is God, that I might be justified? Where is God, that I might be comforted?
Instead, I get a God (from Hebrews) whose Word "is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword..." and there is no hiding from the sharp light of that truth that not only illuminates but also penetrates our lives and our very being. That image is a powerful one for us today, but it was even more so for the people of the ancient world. We don't live with the constant presence of sharp swords and their violence dominating our lives as those did who survived under the occupation of the Roman Empire and its legions of soldiers. The Roman soldier wore the physical embodiment of that metaphorical sword referenced in Hebrews...and it was a very efficient tool for his purpose. That sword had a blade that was 18 inches long and two inches wide with a slight flare at the business end. It was tailored to the hand of the individual soldier and balanced with a large metal pommel that could be used as a club. It was engineered to achieve one aim, to stab and cut-up and down, left or right-and to inflict mortal damage. That sword took life. God's Word, embodied via that metaphor, instead lays us open to life in God. This opening up will be achieved whether we are willing or not...and it is through our steadfast commitment to the confession we share that Jesus is Lord and Priest to us that we are able to live here and now, and in the age to come. It is the truth that parts us and in that surgical rending makes us whole.
It is right about here that we begin to ache for a Gospel passage that brings a peaceful and healing word to us in order to avert the depressing and frightening images of the above. It is now that we want to see Jesus healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the hungry and welcoming the sinners into redemptive fellowship.
Instead, we encounter a rich young man who seek the path to the ultimate blessing in this life and the next: the way to eternal life, salvation in God. He goes to Jesus and calls him a good teacher. He is diplomatic, inquisituve and gracious. Jesus' response is a standard rabbinical directive: Keep the Law; don't kill; don't lie; don't commit adultery, or commit fraud...honor you mother and father....
This rich young man has it all....and not only is he resourced, but he has used those resources well. He has kept the law. He has learned and fulfilled his obligations toward God and the people of Israel and has been able to enjoy the luxury of righteousness since his youth. How many times do we catch ourselves thinking, or even saying, that IF we had just a bit more-a little more time, wealth, power or opportunity-then we would be able to do more, some, any of the right thing? Well, this person had it all, and had spent that all wisely in building up virtue. You would think the story would conclude?
It doesn't. Jesus then looks at him, love him, and tells him that he lacks just one thing (ONE thing to be able to claim his inheritance of eternal life!?!)....to give it all up to the poor and to follow Him.
That is what God asks of us, continually. It is Job's true sin and failure and it is the thing that sets the arena of conflict in which God's Word as sword pierces us to our very marrow. Even when we are at our best, we think, we still hold back from God. We hold back that bit which we presume will allow us to maintain our own autonomy from God, from our neighbor. It could be money, love, time, skill....it could be spirit or faith. Whatever it is, it is the thing we wind up attaching to, binding ourselves to that instead of being bound entirely and utterly to God's will for us. Attachment is a subtle thing. Giving it all up is the hardest thing we face in this life. Attachment is what sends Job into despair, draws that forsaken cry from our lips and turns that piercing light of God's Word into a sword that cuts us to the quick.
Attachment is the thing that leads the rich young ruler to turn from the teacher and walk away from the most challenging, promising and (because WE know it) most rewarding relationship with Jesus any living person could hope for...he turns away because he can't just quite give it all up.
We face that challenge every day as follower of Jesus. Each day we are challenged to surrender to, and to render up to God a sacrifice of love that doesn't just involve bits and pieces of who we are...but instead demand of us our WHOLE being. All the good. All the middle...and even those dark, mucky bits that lie hidden in the bilge and brine of the pickle barrels of our most inmost selves. God wants it all to be laid up on the altar, every little bit. Only then, when we give it all up, do we get back the life God promises to all....
We can choose it, or reject it...but that life is coming to us...either as sword that cuts or as balm that heals...but it is coming.....