Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 28 • 11 Oct 2015

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

Rev. Chris Udy

Apparently when we’re born
many of our strengths and weaknesses
are already set in place,
but like the lines of a sculpture
hidden in a block of stone,
they only emerge
as other possibilities are chipped away.
Research on the brain over the last 10 years or so
reveals that what babies do
for the first few years of life,
encouraged and influenced
by their families and carers,
is to reinforce and strengthen
some parts of their bodies and brains
at the expense of others.
The researchers say that our brains at birth
are like an enormous telephone system
with everything connected to almost everything else -
and what we do as we learn and grow
is use some pathways and connections
over and over and over again -
making them stronger and thicker and faster -
while the connections and pathways we don’t use
slowly disappear.

Whatever we want to do better -
whether it’s language or trust or a golf swing -
involves practise and repetition
and repetition and practise -
and all kinds of learning
involve choosing one thing -
one action, one response, one habit or attitude -
at the expense of others.
Or - to put it the other way ‘round:
how well we live and thrive and succeed
is strongly determined
by what we stop doing.

And to take it a little bit further:
from the moment we’re born
to the day that we die,
our lives will be measured,
not by what we accumulate,
but by how well we give things up.
It starts with little things
like giving up dummies and bottles
and finger feeding,
and progresses on to giving up Play School
and days in the sand pit.
Then afternoons are lost
to homework and soccer practise,
and that’s when the pressure really sets in,
from all sorts of people,
who want us to give things up.

It starts slowly,
with parents and friends and teachers
demanding that we concentrate and focus -
but then it grows
to include partners and police personnel
and the boss and the bank and the tax department -
everyone wanting us to give just a little bit more
and piling on the pressure
when we resist.

It escalates when children arrive
and start to ask for food and clothes,
and entertainment, and education,
and control of the TV and the computer and the car.
Until the day comes when we have to give up work,
give up status and responsibility,
give up salt and butter
and pain-free joints and hair
until at last
we give up life itself.

It’s a long journey,
and every step puts something at risk.
We give up more and more and more -
and everything we give away
involves some change and grief.

But without that change and grief -
without each act of release,
we never learn and grow;
we never succeed and mature -
we never become who we are,
and we never achieve the potential
God invests in each one of us.

There was once a man
who came to Jesus with a burning question.
Matthew’s gospel says he was young,
and Luke’s gospel says he was a ruler,
and all three of the synoptic gospels
say that he was rich -
so this was a man who had much to protect,
and much to lose.
This rich young ruler came running to Jesus
and knelt down in the dirt of the street -
so his question was more important to him
than his dignity.
He said “Good teacher,
what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
‘What must I do
to inherit eternal life?’
It looks like this rich, young, powerful man
wanted to add one more thing
to his list of possessions.
He wanted to be able to say -
not only am I young,
not only am I rich,
not only am I powerful,
but I will have these things forever.
What must I do
to inherit eternal life? - he asked.

‘Only God is good’ – Jesus replied,
as if to say:
a moral compass isn’t something
a teacher can provide for you
you need to be in tune with something bigger.
‘You know the commandments’ – he said:
don't kill, don't cheat, don't steal, don't lie,
give honour to your parents -
and in amongst the list we’re quite familiar with,
Jesus adds in a new one of his own,
especially for the rich young ruler -
‘don’t defraud’.
Sadly it seems that it’s often those
who are already very well off
and greedy to get more
who need that new commandment -
billionaires routinely evading tax
and CEOs like Alan Joyce
receiving $10 million bonuses
come to mind.

“Teacher”, the young man said,
“I have kept all these commandments
since my youth.”

Then in the reading from Mark’s gospel
comes the most important verse in this account -
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him” -
and because of his love,
not as a punishment, or a test,
but as a direction of love,
Jesus said “There is only one thing you lack.”
Only one thing stands between you and eternity.
“Go, sell everything you have,
give it to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come and follow me.”

The young man was shocked,
and he walked away in deep sadness,
because, Mark says, “he had many possessions”.

Jesus watched him walk away
and then he turned to his disciples .
“How hard it is” he said,
“for rich people to enter the kingdom of God.”

Now it was the disciples who were shocked,
so Jesus said again,
“My children,
how hard it is
to enter the kingdom of God.
It’s easier for a camel
to walk through a needle’s eye
than for a rich man
to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples were astounded,
and whispered to each other
“Then who can be saved?”

Then as now,
it was much easier to be righteous and religious
when you had a little money.
Money could buy schooling
to understand the scriptures.
Money bought you animals
to sacrifice at the temple.
Someone with money could afford
a day away from work
to fast and pray as the Law required.
A rich person had food to eat
and shelter at night
and little worry for tomorrow
and it was easy to honour your aging parents
when you had enough and more to spare.
But a poor family
might find the food didn’t stretch,
and shelter wasn’t adequate,
and sometimes stealing, maybe telling lies,
perhaps, in desperation, maybe even killing
could begin to look attractive
to someone whose family
was destitute and hungry.

So if the rich can’t make it into heaven -
even with all their networks
and perks and securities -
then who can - the disciples thought -
and they felt the desperation
of people who have invested in something,
only to find it worthless.

Jesus said - It’s humanly impossible -
but not for God -
with God all things are possible.
Then Peter exploded
with the thought that was on everyone’s mind:
“We left everything”, he said -
we gave up everything to follow you.
We invested all we had in your religion,
and now you tell us
nothing we have done will bring us to heaven.”
And Jesus replied
“I tell you the truth.
No-one who has given up home,
or brothers and sisters,
or mother or father,
or children, or land,
for me and for the gospel
will fail to receive a hundred times as much
now, in this age,
(homes, brothers, sisters, parents, children and land -
and with them persecution)
that’s in this age -
and in the age to come - eternal life.”

Real life is not about accumulation -
it’s not about building up stores of anything -
because the only things that are worth having,
can’t be kept.

When Ginie was doing her MBA,
many years ago now,
there were units on accounting
and financial management
that I was very happy to leave to her -
but what I read over her shoulder
seemed to suggest
that the health of a business
can’t be measured by its assets -
or even by its profit -
because both those measures
can disguise serious problems;
in a company, as in a family or a community,
health is often best measured
by things that don’t appear on the books -
things like morale, pride, innovation,
loyalty, leadership, experience, spirit -
and when we take that back to a personal level,
the same thing applies.
The truth is - as the Church has often found -
assets can become a millstone -
and dragging our shells around
can make us as slow as snails
as we slide towards the kingdom.
Camels can’t get through needles’ eyes
because their assets block their progress -
and our riches -
either as persons or as the body of Christ -
can act like a monkey trap.
We aren’t snails, camels or monkeys,
but we have our own peculiar ways with wealth,
and the challenge Jesus gives
to the rich young ruler
is as real to us as it was to him.

The Christian life is a life of giving away -
giving away our money and time and skills
as we also give away
our fear and our isolation
and our paralysing shame.
Following Jesus means recognising
that we receive life as a gift
from the God who gives life to and for us.
God gives us love
so we can give away our obsession with ourselves.
God gives us forgiveness and grace
so we can give away defensiveness and fear.
The Christian life is costly,
and it involves a struggle
to keep receiving from God,
to keep the channels open,
to keep discovering the truth
that resources of the spirit
can’t be stockpiled and locked up and owned -
they have to be received, and then given away.
But as we engage
in that struggle to open
our hearts and minds and hands,
we discover that the one we depend on,
the one who gives us life,
the one who gives us people to love
and work to do,
who repays us a hundred times
for all we give up in his name,
is also the one who will welcome us home
into our inheritance of eternal life.