The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: July 31, 2016
Preacher: Tim Hamlin
Good morning. To those of you who do not know me, my name is Tim Hamlin, and as some of you may know, I have just recently returned from South Africa where I served as a missionary for the Episcopal Church over the past year. There is a lot to say about that experience and I’m happy to chat with any of you about it after the service [leading forum on the topic after the service] but I’m afraid that I’ll be limiting myself myself mostly to scripture the minutes ahead.
At first glance, today’s gospel passage seems to be a basically familiar condemnation of wealth and the wealthy. We are warned against the perils of greed and are reminded of the difficulties awaiting those of us who are not “rich toward God.” It can feel like another well worn example of Jesus and his ‘radical economics’. We are willing to nod along politely but we’d prefer to avoid confronting the broader implications of Christ’s rousing message. I’m not a bad person and God is inclined to forgive so I will digest the message, compartmentalize it, and move on. My day is too busy to worry about camels and needle’s eyes.
And so we deflect. We tone the message down. We smooth our own flaws with rhetoric. “Jesus was obviously talking about really rich people. I’m comfortable but I’m no billionaire…” We are willing to settle because what Christ seems to be asking of us is just too darn difficult. Good enough ought to be enough. If our hearts are in the right place then we deserve to sleep well at night.
I would like challenge this line of thinking; Christ is calling us to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. Nothing less. That is a huge task and not one to be taken lightly. It is important that we really examine ourselves: as individuals, parishes, and as the broader church. It is important we acknowledge how far we have fallen short of the gospel. It is important that we make ourselves squirm a little bit. Not in a masochistic or dramatic way but with the faith and strength that comes from relationship with God–a relationship that is calling us daily into greater love and the power of God’s love to change us from within.
Because as I see it, that is the basic message of Jesus and his ministry. Your former way of living is not enough–take up your cross, die to your old self, and embrace the transformative love that is found in Christ. I see today’s gospel passage as far more than a simple condemnation of material wealth. Jesus is asking for a total transformation on our part.
“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” Within context that passage is referring to the impending death of the wealthy man and the very dissolution of his well made plans. But it just as easily could refer to any one of us in any moment prior to death–to any human fully awake and alert of the call of God. Your life is being demanded of you—that is what God wants. Our very lives and nothing less.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible we are introduced to a dizzying array of symbolic interpretations of God’s true nature. God as creator, destroyer, warrior, liberator, judge, even lover. But one of the most powerful images that we return to again and again is God as parent. Our father. Abba. This is perfectly illustrated in our reading today from Hosea:
“I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.”
God simply wants us to come home. To return and be in God’s presence again. Where we belong. We are wonderfully distracted by the world as we have made it and God wants us to let go of it all and be once more in union with Him. Our very lives are being demanded of us.
But. HOW?? How can I give up my very self? My whole being? How can I let go of this world in that way, let go of all that I know to be in the very squishy and uncomfortable position of putting God first. I obviously have no answers but it is worth noting that this has been a challenge that has faced Christians from the very beginning, from the first models of martyrdom.
What I can say with some confidence is that it all must start with trusting God. What Jesus is condemning here–what we see in the rich man’s desperate search for security–is the thought that we can go it alone. That we know everything, can plan for every eventuality, and that with the right combination of grit and forethought we can manage just fine without any help from the divine.
In his interpretation of what “the fall” may have looked like, C.S. Lewis lays out the thought processes of early humanity separating itself from God; of an Adam or Eve desperate for some sense of autonomy. “They wanted…to call their souls their own. But that means to live a lie, for our souls are not, in fact, our own. They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, ‘this is our business, not yours.’ But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives.” This makes the gospel passage we heard a little more hard to deal with. Because whether or not we are greedy or “store up treasure for ourselves” can be disputed or reordered in any number of ways. But the idea of security as pride; the notion that building up our possessions or making a name for ourselves or simply striving for a better life is an act of turning away from God–that is radical and terrifying. Because we are all guilty.
Because of course we want security. Of course we want comfort. Of course we want a better life for ourselves and our children. This is natural human instinct. But this parable tells us that that is not enough; that we’ve got the order wrong. We can save our prayers until our weakest moments, we can fall back on God when we have nothing else–but God wants more. And if you truly examine yourself, I’m sure you do too.
In many ways it would be easier to move through life without anything more than ourselves—most people fall into this pattern. But to live a Godly life–to strive to live as a Christian–requires a level of self-denial. And I don’t mean that we must all become ascetics and run off to the wilderness but I think part of the challenge of faith is to acknowledge our limits and with that the need to listen to God at work around us.
This may sound naive or overly optimistic and I readily acknowledge that I lean toward the latter. But trusting God does not mean that pain will disappear nor that suffering will cease. Trusting God does not mean that “God’s plan” will become clear or that sense can be drawn from the senseless. The world is a difficult place, and we as humans have a tendency to make it even more difficult.
Trust begins with listening–seeking the divine within ourselves and trusting where God would lead us. I cannot say what that may look like practically for any of you but before I conclude I would like to share with you an example from my own life.
I applied to be a missionary because it felt right. It’s hard to explain much beyond that but suffice it to say that my instinct drew me to the Young Adult Service Corps–the international mission program that I was sent off to do. Not that I knew what it was that I was getting myself into nor why it would matter; the idea was implanted in my mind and it would not go away–And so I listened. And then, literally days after I sent in my application, I met my girlfriend Henley. Which wouldn’t have been a problem if it didn’t feel like a truly consequential and unparalleled relationship in my life. If I didn’t find myself falling deeply in love with a woman that I would have to leave before the year was out. And so I trusted. Trusted that both instincts were correct and that where God was calling me–into love and into mission–were both essential, as contradictory as it may have seemed.
And now, again, I find myself in the midst of a transition. I have returned from my service abroad and will be moving, at the end of this week, to Los Angeles to start the next leg of my journey. To say that I am nervous does not do the feeling justice. I am a native New Yorker, a proud non-driver, a man who thrives on the serendipitous chaos that this city envelopes us in. Los Angeles was never part of the plan. But Henley moved there after my departure and I will follow because that’s where God is calling me. Because love is there. Because challenges are there. Because transformation is there. I find myself on the edge of a big new step in who I am and who I will become and I am painfully aware of the host of things that can go wrong. But I am trusting. I am leaning in. I am ready to follow where God would lead me. And I will strive to do that all the days of my life.