Sunday, October 10, 2021

Spiritual sticker shock

Have you ever experienced sticker shock? You know, that awful feeling that comes when you realize a meal, a new outfit, a trip, or some new thing turned our to cost more than you expected? 

Well, that happened in today’s Gospel lesson from Mark.  Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem and is stopped by a man with a pressing question.  This man comes up to Jesus and asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus says what the man expected: follow the heart of the Law--love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, love your neighbor as yourself. I can do that! I’ve been a faithful follower my whole life and keep all the commandments.

Great, says Jesus, I love it! Now do one more thing: sell everything you have and come follow me.” At this the man was stunned. Talk about sticker shock! It was too much. And he walked away sad. Which is why, Jesus says, it’s harder to drive a BMW through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I wonder what this person man was thinking as he walked away? Maybe he was thinking, “I try to be a good neighbor, I love God; but something is missing! What do I have to do?”  Maybe all he wanted was a pat on the back, but I don’t think so.

We really can't be sure what this man wanted but why a good, decent, faithful person, would come running up to Jesus, interrupting his journey makes me wonder. Did he expect to be challenged or was he only seeking reassurance?  I think about this in my prayer life: when we pray, do we expect challenge or mere reassurance? Do we want to follow where God leads us, or to get from God a stamp of approval that blesses our assumptions, habits, and opinions?  The risk for us, just as it was for the man in the Gospel, is sticker shock for the soul. 

Notice that mark says Mark that Jesus loved the man.  He saw a person of real faith… maybe with real potential to go deeper. Which is why his walking away was so very surprising and disappointing.

I’m fascinated by Jesus’ response when the man called him a "Good Teacher." Jesus replied, "No one is good but God alone."  Goodness, Jesus says, is not something we obtain or possess, but rather something we move towards.  Jesus challenged this faithful man—and his pride—by reminding him that “goodness” is not a merit badge or a trophy won at the end of a race. This is a temptation we all face: either we think that we will never attain goodness—that we are not ‘good enough’—or we go the other way and think we have this Christianity thing down cold— “easy peasy,” we’ve got this! Merit badge thinking is a self-made stumbling block to both seekers and to the long time faithful.

Once, an American tourist was in Jerusalem and met a monk.  The monk offered to show him around his monastic community.  When they came to the monk's room; the tourist noticed no TV or radio, only one change of clothes, a towel and a blanket.  He asked, "How do you live so simply?"  The monk answered, "I noticed you have only enough things to fill a suitcase; how can you live so simply?"  The tourist said, "But I'm just a tourist, I'm only passing through."  The monk replied, "So am I, so am I."

The last Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in When All You've Ever Wanted is Not Enough

"Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power.  Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve.  Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through."

Our possessions, our wealth, our things—not to mention the unresolved things we carry around in our hearts, minds, and feelings—can be obstacles between us and God.  Whenever I go on a trip and am tempted to bring extra bags despite the fees, I remember what one travel writer said, "If you want to get away from it all, don't take it all with you." 

But it’s hard to let go of what we’ve depended on and what we think we need to trust in God's grace, love, and power. During our journey of faith, sooner or later, God will challenge each of us with the one thing we think we can never give up.  The man who had approached Jesus couldn't let go of what he possessed so he could be possessed by God.  And all of us face the same challenge.

We might try to bargain with God. We might say “Why so much, Lord? Why not allow us to simply say a kind word instead of acting with compassion by helping another?” Or “Why must I forgive a person who has hurt me, instead of simply letting the conflict recede into the past?”

Cannot the hungry feed themselves?  Cannot the lonely care for themselves?  Cannot the children and youth learn their faith from someone else?  Cannot those burdened by life lift themselves up?  Cannot broken relationships simply heal themselves? 

Sooner or later, we will be startled by the fact that God does not build the kingdom on good intentions. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian and pastor, who was martyred by the Nazis in 1945 just before World War 2 ended, had a phrase for this: he called it ‘cheap grace.’ He wrote:

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without [church] discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

The man who urgently approached Jesus thought eternal life would be easy, but he walked away heartbroken, and grief stricken because he could not bear the "sticker shock" of Jesus’ answer. 

He was so close! I imagine him looking over his shoulder as Jesus and his little band walked away, thinking through both grief and envy, "I wanted so much to be with them!” But he couldn't take the risk of giving up all he had and trusting in God.

We like to think that we’d be more like Peter, Andrew, James and John who dropped their nets and followed Jesus, or how Matthew had gotten up from his tax table to go. I want to be like them, too! But sometimes the "sticker shock" keeps us from discovering the joy and peace that comes into life by daring to follow Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

We don't know what happened to the man who turned away from Jesus; we don't even know his name.  I guess he faded into history because he could not take that final step. I sometimes wonder if he didn’t slap himself on the forehead and say “what was I thinking?!?” and, deciding to sell it all, comes after Jesus after all. Who knows? Probably not… but who knows?

One thing we do know: this man’s challenge is not unique, and he is not alone. Our own sense of spiritual sticker shock makes us understand what Jesus meant about how hard it for the rich, the kingdom, camels and needles. Compared to most people around the globe, we are wealthy—with choices beyond the reach of so many, from what we can buy at the store, to the choices available to us in our living, to the abundance we experience every day. We are more like that rich young ruler than we’d like to think, and that’s why spiritual sticker shock is something we all experience.

But before you walk away, listen again to the promise that Jesus makes to you and me.  "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."  Whatever is holding you back, God is ready to help us work it through, deal with it, and in the presence of Christian community, with the tools of sacramental living, the prayer of the whole church, and with a daily diet of scripture and prayer, we are invited to take that final step to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. We might at first walk away, but we can always turn around!

Here is the bulletin for Sunday, October 10, 2021.

Here is the video of the liturgy for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23B)

Here  is the video of the sermon.

Here is a link to the lessons for the day.

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