I don’t like heights. I don’t mind them if I’m inside a building, but I NEVER ride a ferris wheel. You’d have to sedate me. I never liked climbing up in deer stands to hunt. Didn’t see what the big deal was. Bungee jumping? Nope. Balconies? Maybe, if I can just look out and not down.
When I was a kid, one of my “jobs” as a child (you know how parents always give the kids the strange jobs we don’t want ourselves? Or was that just my parents?) One of my jobs was to get on the roof and take off the two boards off the chimneys in the Fall. We had to cover the chimney holes so the birds wouldn’t go in. But, my job was to remove them.
And, to do this, my dad would hoist me up on his shoulders where I could climb up on the roof. I would walk over and get the job down. I realized the problem with this scenario the first time I did this. It was fairly easy to get up there. And being up there was fine, so long as I didn’t really look over the edge.
But how to get down? I honestly don’t know why he didn’t just buy a ladder. Are you thinking that, too? But, anyway…no ladder. Because that would have been normal…
To get down that first time, he told me to sit down, and scoot over to the edge of the roof.
“Put your feet down, and slip off and you can stand on my shoulders and jump down from there.”
My response to him was direct: “Do you really think that’s going to happen?”
“You can do it. Just sit down and scoot. And jump.”
I managed to get on my stomach, scootch down, with my legs dangling off the roof. Lord only knows what passerbys thought. I got that far and was stuck, with my dangling feet. At which point my father grabbed my ankles and tried to pull me.
Not a good feeling, to be pulled down off a roof. I held for dear life, yelling. I would not let go of the roof for the longest time. But, finally, I realized I could let go and my father really would grab me around the waist. I survived.
And the next time I got a ladder!
Letting go is hard to do, in any situation. It’s a scary thing to let go of anything that we’re accustomed to.
Today’s Gospel is one of those difficult ones—at first glance. At second glance, it seems near impossible. This stranger comes up to Jesus and asks what he must do to have eternal life. And, Jesus reminds him of the commandments, at which point the man feels some relief, I would imagine: “I have kept these since my youth.” I’ve been a good religious person, we can imagine him saying. I’m a cradle…insert category here.
But then it gets tricky. Jesus pauses and then tells him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” And then we have this image of the man walking away in silence, “shocked” and “grieving” because “he had many possessions.”
He couldn’t imagine letting go….letting go of those things which he had, up to that point, believed gave him identity and even maybe secured how he understood his salvation. “He had many possessions.”
Jesus tells his disciples, who witnessed this awkward encounter, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”
So, since this is the kickoff Sunday of our stewardship campaign, and since Jesus tells us about this difficulty, we’ve decided to make it easy for you to enter heaven this year! Just sign it all over, right? And, there you go! Ha!
If only it were that easy…but there’s a lot more going on…
I don’t think Jesus was picking out those who had a good bit of money. He was responding to the situation that had been presented with the wealthy man. The man who came to ask Jesus, this was his context, his situation, his particular struggle. And, Jesus, of course, used this as a teaching moment.
Because, you see, it’s not about money. It’s about our propensity to grasp at things that we think define us. It’s about how we won’t let go of things that we cling to—sometimes kicking and screaming and halfway hanging off a roof.
Jesus uses this image of economics in the sense that the word economy means the well being of the household. He’s inviting us into a reflection. Notice that the conversation wasn’t just about money but also about the way the man felt proud that he had relied so heavily on keeping what he thought were the proper religious protocols. That’s not enough…
My Buddhist friends get this element of religious practice much better than I do. They speak a great deal about detachment, and how vital that is for healthy spiritual grounding: being willing to be aware of the way we get “stuck” and even prideful in maintaining our proper way of doing things, of grasping onto things that we feel are going to give us the life we need.
But, when we reflect, as Jesus invites us to, we discover that the more tightly we grasp to possessions, the more that those things possess us. It’s strange: we become the possessions.
Way back in the day, around the year 350, a man named Anthony—Antonius really—heard this text being read in the fledgling Christian community in Egypt. It struck him as true, so he literally sold his family farm and land and gave it away to the poor. He kept a bit of it and gave it to his sister for her to live on. Then, he felt guilty, went back, and gave that bit of money to the poor and put his sister in a convent. Then, he went and lived in the tombs for over two decades…
And later that year he won the “Brother of the Year Award.”
He has become known to us as St. Anthony of Egypt, and he’s known as the founder of Christian monasticism. We look at his life and see a pattern there…a pattern of willingness (maybe craziness too) but willingness, openness…to let go, to stop grasping…..to trust. And that’s a big word for us: trust.
When Jesus gave this teaching to his disciples, they looked at each other and asked, “Then who can be saved?” Who can possibly do this? Who can live up to this? And Jesus has to remind them that they—we—never do this on our own. This isn’t about something that we accomplish, and can then be proud of and grasp to that accomplishment. It is something that is a gift… a Gift of God. And we realize that our entire lives are gifts from God…that all we have has been given to us to appreciate and share…and to help build one another up.
It seems to me that we’re going to be possessed by something. Something is going to define our lives, that’s inevitable. But, we are given a choice of how to practice our faith. And, it’s going to be hard. There are days when we do struggle, like Job…wondering where God is: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him.” Or there may even be times when we feel desperation: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s the honest reality of life…
But…or And, rather, we can hear Jesus’ words: “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Yes, we’re going to be possessed by something. I want to be possessed by God. I want to experience a level of enthusiasm that reorients my life toward a fullness…beyond grasping. This word enthusiasm, to be enthused, you can hear the thu, or theo, in there…that’s God. It means to be possessed by God, by the Divine…to be open, willing…. To share in Mary’s fiat, “let it be with me according to your will.” “Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Yes, sometimes—maybe oftentimes—we find ourselves hanging off a roof, feet dangling…unable to imagine letting go….of something. And our father is standing right there, reminding us, “I promise you won’t fall. I promise I’m right here. I’m going to catch you. I already have a hold of you. All you have to do is stop kicking…and let go. It will be alright…..I promise. I promise.”
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 23, Year B
October 11, 2015