In the Name of our Loving, Liberating, and Life-Giving God:Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Spiritually we are swimming against the tide. We know this. In most ways we name, secular culture is at odds with sacred life. Our society tells us to be busy, work hard, earn more, get ahead, and to seek our own pleasure. A spiritual life calls us to know and feel the oneness of everything. AND we all know it is not one or the other in life, it is both. In fact, as a faithful person it makes sense because in God, everything belongs. For those of us used to thinking in the either/or mode, this can be close to impossible to grasp.
Jesus taught, through his radical welcome, that more than one thing can be true at once. A person can be a sinner who is scorned in sight of the community, and also be as welcome at the table with Jesus as a beloved disciple would be.
As we turn to our gospel reading today, we hear several messages. At once. Today I’ll share two interpretations of the gospel, knowing full well that there are probably more than only two ways to understand this scriptural teaching.
One way to hear Jesus’ admonition to go, sell everything, and give it to the poor is to understand it to be saying that separation from worldly goods can give us perfect freedom. It is a difficult thing for a person to do, but if it could be done, then the one who had sold everything for the sake of Jesus would be absolutely free.
Carrying out Jesus’ instruction to sell what we own, would make us free from attachment – except attachment to Christ. We would be free from the marketplace where things are bought and sold, free from the need of money, and free from responsibility to care for what we own.
In such an instance, there would no longer be anxiety about a thief in the night. What would they steal? We could be free of the burden of possession.
Consider this simple example of the way our possessions can dictate what we do: A friend has an expensive shirt, but they will wear it nowhere food is served. Ownership of the shirt ends up controlling what the friend does. They care more about preserving a beautiful shirt than being free to use it any way they like.
In addition to that kind of freedom, if we no longer have worldly goods, then we don’t have anything to scrape together (like grain or coins) in search of our next meal.
Through owning nothing, we learn the truth is that everything which feeds us is provided by God.
We express this truth at each service when we say: All things come of you O God, and of your own have we given you.
We know ourselves fed both physically and spiritually by God. God’s love is expressed in the goodness and charity of others, and through the abundance in creation. We learn that God provides everything we need.
Jesus’ instruction to own nothing, and the tradition of poverty still observed by monastic orders, in this interpretation, is the path to freedom, the path to God.
Another understanding of the story might be the lesson that what matters is the reason we doing something – not the thing we do.
Here, the rich man claims to have followed every commandment, yet he gives no evidence of a life of the spirit. In spite of doing everything required, he is still searching for his spiritual direction. Jesus looks upon the heart, and sees that a focus on good works, or the simple performance of tasks, overlooks the reverence for God they symbolize.
From their outset, commandments were laid down not only for the good of the community, but also to teach the lesson that the important things to do are the ones which draw us closer to God.
Good works can be done for the sake of God, but Jesus told the man who came searching that it wasn’t enough to look good on the outside, because the heart inside might be rotten to the core. God’s commandments demand that we understand them in light of our relationship with God, not simply as a checklist of proper or acceptable things to do. The spirit of the law evidences love for God and for our neighbor.
When we hold two understandings of one reading, we don’t have to make a choice of one in favor of the other. The beauty of God’s creation is that everything belongs. We may not understand how it works, but we do know that one teaching does not cancel the other out. We can hold them both at the same time.
This is one of the benefits of not reading Holy Scripture literally. When we understand the Bible in more than literal terms, we see that a variety of metaphors can illuminate, to a great extent, how to go about living a faithful life. The more ways we can look at God’s love the closer we come to complete understanding.
When we allow two seemingly contradicting things to exist together, God repairs parts of our selves (and our world) which have been at war. What has been broken can come closer to being whole. We find that everything belongs in God.
As Jesus was crucified on the cross, he suffered physical torture. He also suffered torture of the mind and soul. In addition to the wood and the nails, he felt the betrayal of friends, and witnessed with horror the violence people were willing to inflict on others.
Jesus did not ask God to bring his suffering to an end. He selflessly gave himself up to it. He looked with pity and sorrow on those who were persecuting him and grieved. He prayed for their forgiveness. They did not know that their cruelty could lead way to the expression of absolute love.
In the resurrection, Jesus died on the cross for everyone he loved, and that included the people who were killing him. So we see that somehow everything belongs in that story. No part of it can be left out so that it holds the same meaning. Every evil and every good are present in it. God finds a way to make all things whole.
When we are tempted to see the world in black and white terms, when we see our enemy as completely evil and ourselves entirely blameless, we are working against living with the radical love God gives us. The way to wholeness is away from seeing things set against each other. Instead, we strive to remain open to seeing everything as God does. Whole.
We do not have to think of sharing resources as acts which will make us poor, generously giving is a way to become more Christ-like. Whole.
The Rev. Dawn M. Frankfurt
October 10, 2021
St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS