Sermon for TRINITY 19 Sunday 14 October 2012
Mark 10:24 It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Don’t follow that camel. You won’t get in. There’s always a certain restlessness in a congregation when that text is announced from the pulpit. I can see the mental arithmetic rising from your head. There’s the salary or pension, the ISA, the National Savings Certificates so neatly filed, the State pension, the property, the second property. Yet we just scrape by, don’t we? Let’s hope Jesus doesn’t mean what he says. One easy way out, and we’ve had two thousand years to ponder this riddle, is to say that it was all very different back then in Palestine, and rich people were probably oppressive profiteering landlords, as in today’s reading from Amos, and of course we’re not. But it won’t do, because in one important respect we think the same way as those who listened to Jesus. Wealth is good. In Biblical times it was seen as a blessing from God. You were in favour. The righteous were rewarded. And in those days there were points to be gained by giving alms, giving some of the wealth away. But Jesus could not be clearer, although we need the context. His words on wealth are part of a series of sayings on what prevents us getting to heaven, two other obstacles being family ties and commitments, and the idea of a reward of any kind for our actions.
Is Jesus a Communist? Surely some rich people can get into Heaven? What about those who are of modest means, but a bit tight? So there are all sorts of ingenious interpretations of these verses designed to prove Jesus wrong, of which the most bizarre solution of modern times is that the eye of the needle is actually a very narrow gate in the wall of Jerusalem, and if you starved your camel for a month or two, you could just squeeze it through the gate, so getting into heaven for rich people was difficult, but not impossible. There is no need for such verbal or cameline acrobatics. Jesus had wealthy followers, such as Joseph of Arimathea. He must mean something else.
The word of God, we heard today in the letter to the Hebrews, cuts like a double edged sword but more finely. It slips through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit. It can judge secret emotions and thoughts. When we consider Jesus as the Son of God, we are attributing to him this divine judgement, the judgement, the bringing to light of our conscious and unconscious emotions and thoughts. In other words, the words of Jesus are not directed just to rich people, Pharisees, money-changers, fallen women, blind beggars, as in the Gospel stories: they are for you and me. Jesus’s stories are about you and me. God speaks to me only as I am, rich or poor. Jesus’s words apply to us, whoever we are and whatever we possess. Attachments of any kind, particularly to wealth, status, and power, have an effect upon us of which we are largely unconscious; they cover up the the desire for God, which is the starting point on the human journey. By presenting us with the picture of a rich person, Jesus is showing us our dependence upon our own resources – because we do depend on what we believe to be our riches, whether that be financial, intellectual, spiritual, emotional – and the message is that this will never be enough to satisfy us, and the peace which passes all understanding, the kingdom of God, is a matter of divine grace only.
Our personal difficulties and the problems we face as a society are spiritual problems. The human spirit does not find fulfilment in mere material success or prosperity. It isn’t that material success or prosperity are bad in themselves but they are simply not adequate as a final or ultimate answer to the questions raised by human life. We are called to a place of freedom from the emotional tyranny of material goods. As St Paul told Timothy, those who long to be rich get trapped in all sorts of foolish and dangerous ambitions. This is a spiritual problem. How to solve it? There’s a lot in the Gospels about roads, Jesus is always setting out on a journey, travelling along a road, it’s the image of the refugee, the unsettled one, the person who leaves his or her home; people are called from the roadside, to walk with Him on the Way. When you are on a journey, you can not carry everything you own. It is of little use to you. For most of us, bogged down in middle life with more than we need and far more than we can sort though, let alone carry, this is hard. And there’s nothing attractive to us in homelessness, in the worn faces of the dispossessed, the refugee; we are not made for the dangers of nomad life.
But the image stands. Renunciation, giving up, is inseparable from spiritual progress. We know that, the tradition speaks to us of it, we keep hearing about it: the undivided heart; the one way journey; we just don’t know how to do it. This is the personal agony, our chronic indecision, exposed in today’s Gospel. Jesus looked at the rich young man, and loved him, understood him. Again the word of God judges secret emotions and thoughts. Sell everything; come, follow me. But the rich man’s face fell at these words. We are afraid of this freedom which God offers us. So, who can be saved? This might help a little. Giving up, renunciation, of whatever kind, poverty, celibacy, turning from the attachments of this world, is not a means of finding God; it is the consequence of finding God. Finding God comes first; then everything is changed for us, and we can follow. Sell everything; come follow me. God is the absolute; everything else is relative. The Spirit of God is revealed in us, in our lives, and then we can enter the Kingdom of God. Perhaps we could hear today’s story in another way. It is a story about our discipleship, our attachment to God. We shall look beyond the needs of the self. The story about the camel is still a riddle, but maybe it’s about us trying to get into heaven, determined to push our way in, to re-jig our finances a bit, be more generous, and take heaven by storm, always masters of our own timetable, as the rich are in their daily lives, and the poor are not. But we can’t, we slide away like that rich young man, until we discover, through the heart, rather than the head, that God gives His life to those who offer Him their lives, he offers his freedom to those who live by God’s timetable rather than their own, he offers knowledge of Himself to those who see past, or see through, our inward-looking wealthy complicated lives to the spaciousness of the desert and wilderness where God is always to be found. Then the gate of heaven opens outwards, it is opened from the inside, and we enter to the places reserved for us, accepted as we are, rich and poor. Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you. And I’m sure that includes the camels.
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning