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“Mail on a Holiday”

October 12, 2015

“Mail on a Holiday” Mark 10:17-31 © 10.11.15 Ordinary 28B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Thanks to modern technology and science, the list of things considered impossible is constantly growing shorter. Ways and speeds of communication, means of medical diagnosis, the gathering of DNA evidence from crime scenes—just to name a few—perhaps astound us now, but they would have seemed to people only a century or even fifty years ago to be wizardry. As Arthur C. Clarke famously observed: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Still, there are some things that remain impossible. We can’t fly at warp speed or get Scotty to beam us up. We don’t have a cure for cancer or diabetes or Crohn’s Disease or the common cold. We can’t fix stupid. And we can’t fold soup.

On the contrary, said Steve Martin during his days as a stand-up comic. In his 1970s book Cruel Shoes, Martin provided a foolproof technique. The key was to follow his recommendations closely and do so with utmost gentleness. Once the liquid was rolled into a cylinder, he told the reader to “[p]lace the little packet in your purse or inside coat pocket, and pack off to work. When that lunch bell chimes, impress your friends by forming the soup back into a bowl shape, and enjoy! Enjoy it until that day when the lunchpail comes back into vogue and we won’t need soup folding…” (© 1977, 1979: 77).

One day, I came up with my own list of impossible things I wanted and turned them into a song. I went out to the mailbox expecting there to be something in it, but then realized that there was nothing because it was a national holiday. I think it was either Columbus Day or Presidents’ Day, not something I would remember, like Thanksgiving or Christmas. I was disappointed, since I love waiting for and getting mail. On coming inside, I wrote, in part: “I want mail on a holiday/Airlines with no delays/A year with no bills to pay/I want the impossible. I want pizza without the fat/A homerun every time at bat/For dogs to get along with cats/I want the impossible. I want Mighty Mouse to save the day/Sweets with no tooth decay/Good food on a hospital tray./I want the impossible. I want to have lunch with Daniel Boone/Be on Mars by tomorrow at noon/See the dark side of the moon./I want the impossible” (Words and music © 2005 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.)

I thought about food and mail schedules, bills and space travel, even eating with a dead American hero when I reflected on things that are at least currently impossible. When the ancients wanted to talk about things that couldn’t happen, they said “It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” No matter what you may have heard, they didn’t picture the animal stooping down to get through a little gate called the “Eye of the Needle” in the wall of Jerusalem after getting rid of the pack on its hump, as a kind of parable of humility. In fact, there was no such gate; that’s a legend from the Middle Ages. First-century folk, including Jesus, meant a real needle with a tiny little eye and trying to fit that big, lumbering beast through that hole. The size differential was just too much. Not even the animal’s nose or hoof would fit through. It could not be done, short of dematerializing the animal or shrinking it to the diameter of a piece of thread, which is still impossible even in our day.

But I’m getting ahead of the story a little. What led Jesus to use the proverb in a particular way was his conversation with a rich man who came to see him. We don’t know from Mark whether the man was young or a ruler, only that he had a lot of money, and we don’t even learn that right away. Instead, we read first that he respects Jesus, calling him “good Teacher.” He also is a spiritual seeker. More on that in a minute. He’s also a genuinely good man. He has kept the commandments governing human relationships since he was a kid. Notice that Jesus takes his claim at face value; it really is possible for someone to say he or she is good and not lie or be self-deceived. Others could no doubt bear testimony to the man’s integrity, his regard and care for his parents, his respect for the life and the property of others. In Hebrew, I suspect he would have been called an “ish tam,” “an innocent man.”

But keeping the commandments had not brought him the satisfaction he sought. Meant originally to be a way of relating to God and maintaining community identity, the provisions of the Torah for some had by that day come to be seen as rules, much like people in any age tend to do with a living tradition. As I said, this man was spiritually sensitive, so he knew there had to be something more to life that what he was experiencing. He was much like the faculty members a campus minister from Oregon recently described: “still questing for a deeper understanding of their own selves, the people they share in community with, and even God” (Timothy Stover, “The Turner Checklist,” NCMA Chronicles, 10.5.15). It’s not those who are dull to the transcendent that long for more. Instead, it’s the spiritually attuned, those whose hearts are already filling up with God. They are the restless ones, who want finally to know all God has in store for them. But like approaching the speed of light, the infinite velocity in normal space, when we get close to the infinite reality, it seems harder and harder to go the remaining distance to attain what we want. It takes more energy and time and commitment.

Still, though, whatever it took, he had told himself, the man wanted to do it. The good life he had was the enemy of the best. The possessions, the happy marriage, the sons and daughters, the good reputation in the community weren’t bringing him joy. And no one seemed to have any answers.

But the response he got from Jesus was shocking. Unimaginable. Yes, he was willing, but sell everything and give away the money? What madness was this? His possessions enabled him to serve his neighbors; he was generous and kind. Why would Jesus tell him to get rid of them?

Let’s not misunderstand. Jesus wasn’t against the man or anybody having money, especially if they shared what they had. But with his special insight into people, our Lord knew that for this seeker the last step was to unburden himself of the things that owned him. They were holding the man back from life. And because Jesus loved him, he wanted the man to know the fulfillment he sought. As someone once wrote: “Love is a way of seeing, and those who love us best see us best. In loving the…man, Jesus sees him as he truly is, but in a way that the…man is not yet capable of seeing himself. Jesus wants him to have the life he is looking for, but lets him know that his attachment to what he owns prevents him from seeing and being who he truly is, and thus from finding fullness of life” (The Christian Century, 10.6.09: 18).

Paul Tillich, a great theologian of the last century, once said that whatever is our ultimate concern is really our god. This is a story about ultimate concern and giving up the loyalties and idols that have claimed us. We might not even be aware that they are holding us back from relationship with the One who is truly ultimate and worthy of worship, the One who alone gives life. For the man in the text, his riches held him back. For you or me it may be something else.

So, what has taken hold of you and me? What is it we foolishly believe completes us but which really is evidence of our great emptiness? What would Jesus say?

“One thing you lack,” he calls to one. “Go and be reconciled to your neighbor or that family or church member against whom you’ve held a grudge all these years. Admit the safety you feel in your anger, wrapped around you like a cocoon. Break it open and soar into the new life of peace with your enemy. Risk being vulnerable to another and know the freedom it brings.”

“One thing you lack,” Jesus says to another. “Throw off the resentment you revel in. You love to be the martyr, the victim, the put-upon one, as if you alone had to meet demands or suffer inconvenience or bear burdens. Discover joy once again, even in doing your duty to those who aren’t grateful or helpful.”

“One thing you lack. Give up your love of power and recognition. You want to be in control and to be known. But that’s evidence of your insecurity with the world, your world, crashing down around you. Depend on me; grant me the power over your life. Find your identity in baptism, in belonging to God.”

“One thing you lack. Go look at your calendar and come follow me. You think you’re over-committed. Maybe you’re really wrongly committed or under-committed to that which will truly fulfill you. Everything else becomes just busyness to fill the hours so you won’t have to confront your doubts and loneliness.”

“One thing you lack,” says the Lord to still another. “Give me your spending habits. I want your money as I want every other part of your life. I ask you to spend your dollars, whether they are many or few, as if I mattered to you. As if justice and peace and concern for others were the most important things to you. Give from your heart and from your best, not the leftovers and afterthoughts, as someone thankful to God.”

Maybe none of those apply to you. But whatever it is holding you or me back from fulfillment, we could express it in two words: give up. But there is another important clue to the spiritual life in the text. Again, two words: own up or maybe fess up. Here I’m talking about the assumptions we make about the way God works.

The disciples were taken aback, astounded, perplexed by Jesus’ claim that it would be hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. In that day, there was no middle class. One was either very rich or very poor. And if you were rich, your wealth was commonly seen as the evidence of God’s blessing. If you had the first century equivalent of a private jet and a mansion on gated property, you were in with God. You had the ear of the Almighty more than a peasant; God took your calls, answered your texts, but ignored the tenant on your land or the homeless guy at your gate. And to thank him for this favor, you used your wealth to benefit the community.

The disciples, like everybody else, bought into this system of values, assumed this was the way God meant everything to be. And if the rich didn’t have much of a chance, then the rest of the people may as well just call it quits now.

Jesus assures them with some good news for both rich and poor. But before we hear that, let’s ask about our own assumptions. We buy into a great many cultural values, popular wisdom, that sound like gospel, but really aren’t. There are plenty who still believe that riches are a sign of God’s favor and suffering and poverty means he’s cursed you. And here’s another common idea in the church: “God has no hands but ours.”

If we don’t do it, God’s kingdom is at risk, so this thinking goes. I know what those who promote such a notion are trying to accomplish. Many a desperate preacher has used the line to try to motivate apathetic, disinterested churchgoers, so-called “pew potatoes,” to go out into the world in mission or volunteer for some committee. I recall using it myself when I was in high school and trying to recruit volunteers for an evangelistic crusade in Georgia. “There are people going to hell because you don’t tell them about Jesus,” I chided.

As a kid I didn’t know that’s not gospel. Instead, the good news is that God will do God’s work God’s way whether we cooperate or not. He will not abandon his dream merely because we don’t buy into it. He’ll just find someone else to call and challenge. If Presbyterians don’t do it, he’ll use Pentecostals or pagans or even atheists, albeit unwittingly. Or he’ll forget about using people, and do something directly. Remember: God is sovereign and free to act anyway he wants, with whomever he wants, whenever he wants, wherever he wants. He would like to have our hands and feet and hearts and heads, but if we don’t give them, he isn’t going to be stymied in his plans and wring his hands in despair, saying like Scarlett O’Hara: “What shall I do?”

Indeed, God’s power is so great that he can and will do the impossible. So, not only do we give up and own up if we want to live fulfilling lives. We finally need to look up. The gospel makes demands on us, yes, but the final word is always one of hope. Not shallow optimism, but hope because God is able to do the impossible. God fulfills his promises. God overturns the order of things that keeps us from true life, that holds us down and keeps us back.

It was a word of ultimate hope that Jesus offered his disciples. They had indeed left everything to follow him. And his promise was that what they had given up, they would get back. In the experience of Christian community, they would know hospitality, they would find a dwelling place. They would gain new relationships that meant as much as any family. Things would be hard, yes. Christian faith when lived out in the world brings persecution, hostility, misunderstanding. But even that was a gift of God to strengthen them. As the old saying goes, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Difficulties bring people together; they help the community to define and live what’s important.

The power of God would see them through. Indeed, it will see us all through. For with God, nothing is impossible. As I wrote in my song back when: “Where mortals fail, God will prevail, so nothing is impossible.”

Even, I suppose, going through the eye of a needle while eating your unfolded soup and reading your Thanksgiving mail.

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