Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Mark 10:17-31

I owe thanks to Bonnie for introducing me to Thomas Merton’s prayer, which I love. We read it today as our Prayer of the Church. I only knew Merton by name before I came to Hope, and now I hope we will eventually get to call him “St Thomas” (not that we do that sort of thing). Merton captured the uncertainty of faith. He knew that God was mysterious, and that really we can’t even be certain about ourselves. Writing in the middle of the twentieth century, he brought Zen to Christian life. He made clear that the goal of faith is not to find an image of God. We’re here to enter a mystery, not to comprehend concepts. “Faith” is not a state of mind, as if we controlled the states of our minds anyway. God is a reality too deep for our simple confidence.

We know to be wary of confidence in ourselves. We don’t go looking for the kind of self-confidence that Job has in this reading. Job wants to seek God and make his case before the Judge of the universe. We tend to justify Job’s story as being about “pride,” that sin we love to hate. We suspect that God allowed Job’s suffering just so he didn’t get too cocky. There’s sure plenty of confidence in this passage: Job says, “Lemme at him! I’ll show him who’s just!” Job knows he’s good. But then again, so does God. This whole story started with God bragging about Job, who “doesn’t do anything evil.” Job is not punished for being bad, or even for being proud. The force of the story comes from Job’s goodness, his worthiness.

This is an ongoing problem in religion: why doesn’t God make more sense? Good and bad things happen regardless of our virtues. Life is manifestly unfair, and Job knows it, and he desperately wants to find God and set the record straight. But God is not interested in being found here. If you read on in the story, when Job does find God, he still gets no good answer to his complaint. Maybe Job would have gotten the same answer regardless of how he went looking, but his disappointment comes from approaching God looking to be proved right.

The man in Mark’s story seeks Jesus like Job sought for God – with an eye toward proving himself – and he’s just as disappointed with the answer he gets. This man does things right. He tells Jesus that he’s kept all the commandments and then some, and we know he’s right because God has rewarded him with wealth (as we knew God did for those who did right). Now he finds himself a good teacher, as if he could just follow Jesus’ goodness all the way to God, but Jesus says that’s not the point either. This man has a way (the commandments) and a guide (a Good Teacher named Jesus), but he still lacks one thing, and that thing devastates him.

Mark’s words, that the man is sad because he’s very rich, suggest that he’s unwilling to give up his money for God, that he loves money more than God. I’m not sure that’s case (but ask me again the next time this text comes up). Jesus doesn’t call this person a money-grubber. As he said, he’s kept all the commandments, presumably even #2, which prohibits us from making idols of anything, even money. Money was not a sign of unfaithfulness, it was was his reward for doing what’s right. Just as in Job’s time, the culture said that God rewarded faithfulness with prosperity, and this person’s riches proved his goodness. (Our time is not so different, really. We like to think people should get what’s coming to them, and it feels unfair when nasty people win.) I think that’s what makes this person sad – not the loss of the wealth itself, because that came from God anyway – but the loss of his symbol of divine favor. It makes him sad to give up his assurance God loves him, the sign of his reward (as Jesus suggests his followers will get as well).

We’re maybe one or steps beyond this. We know that money is not the only way God tells us we’re doing right (or some of us would be worried!), but we look to health, comfort, or “peace of mind” as concrete signs that we’re on the right track. We count the people showing up for our Sunday worship service, we weigh our faults against our good works, we inventory our friends and blessings. When seeking feels like it’s too much, we try to be convinced that we’ve found it, we’ve gotten to God.

That’s what disheartens this man: he has to give up his assurance that he’s got it figured out and learn how to live without confidence in his own understanding. Jesus invites him to give up something deeper than wealth: the sense that he knows where he’s going. Jesus invites this man to follow him all the way to the cross – to ultimate rejection, to the greatest distance from God you can imagine. He invites us to give up worldly things, but also to give up the self-assurance that we’re doing what’s right to begin with. It’s impossible to enter the Reign of God if we know what it is. The Reign of God is bigger than what we know (or what we feel, for that matter).

The Reign of God is huge, but its door is so small that if we were big enough to hold God’s Reign ourselves, we’d never fit through. Forget camels, try to fit a ball of yarn through the eye of a needle. You can’t do it all at once, just one piece at a time. So we have to go through the gate of God’s Domain empty, then be filled up – not vice versa. Even so, we can’t empty ourselves. Even a very small camel is too big for the eye of needle. This is impossible for us.

What the rich man lacked was something he already had. He didn’t lack money, he lacked freedom from it, from the self-judgment it means. Often our deepest wants are what we have: control, safety, or certainty of what God wants from us. Christ may ask us to give up our certainty – our control, our knowledge of what God calls us to. Christ may ask us to become something different. Christ may invite us to be free from the ways that the world measures our goodness, so we can live in God’s reality instead.

So this passage may invite you to give up your wealth, and we know we’re far richer than the majority of the world’s people. If that’s your call today, good. That’s part of why we put the offering immediately after the sermon, to give you a time to respond to God’s call by giving of yourself. But that’s the real point, money aside: to give of yourself, to give what God calls you to give, to be free to answer God’s invitation. Some people give money because God calls them to be free from their excess. Some give time in order to purify and structure their week. Some give energy and prayer. And some feel that they have nothing to give in the face of budgets, stresses, or pain.

I worry that we tend to turn this offering time into an obligation, that we ask you to give your money (and preferably more of it than you did last year) so the church doesn’t go belly up. Well, the Church is not going anywhere. I can’t say anything for certain about the CE building, or the sanctuary, or my salary, but the Church is here and you aren’t going anywhere. So give what you’re called to give. Let yourself be free of what you’re called to be free of. In these next minutes, let yourself release control over that part of your life. Pause and hold the plate as it comes to you. In prayer, respond to Christ’s invitation: come and follow. You may put a symbol or token of your wealth in the plate, dedicating your gifts to God’s service. You may reclaim yourself for your home, your family, or yourself. What you give may feel like much, or like nothing, but it’s plenty when you give it with your desire that this be your best intention.

Amen.

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