A Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 10, 2021
Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania
O Lord Jesus Christ, you became poor for our sake, that we
might be made rich through your poverty: Guide and sanctify,
we pray, those whom you call to follow you through lives committed to poverty,
that by their prayer and service they may enrich your Church, and by their life and
worship may glorify your Name; for you reign with the Father
and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
I’d Rather have Jesus by George Beverly Shea
I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands.
I’d rather be led by His nail pierced hand
Than to be the king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin’s dread sway.
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.
I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause;
I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause;
I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame.
I’d rather be true to His holy name [Chorus]
Author: Rhea F. Miller (1922)
Tune: I’D RATHER HAVE JESUS (Shea)
As a Southern Baptist child in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the 1970’s, I recall watching Billy Graham preach on television many times at the home of my Grandparents, Jack and Edna Cook. On more than one occasion, I recall hearing George Beverly Shea sing “I’d rather have Jesus” as a central part of the musical prelude before the Sermon. He was a favorite of Mammaw Cook, and she love this song in particular.
Unlike so many of the other songs which we heard, in those days, which made making a commitment to Christ sound daunting, and even overwhelming, there was something about this song which sounded more upbeat and positive. It portrayed a commitment to Jesus as something unique, something precious, something amazingly valuable. Jesus was an incomparable treasure, something more desirable than anything which the world could offer.
For people who are poor this imagery is especially powerful. It is consoling to know that, in their poverty, they do have Jesus! He too, understood what it was to be so poor that he did not even have a place to lay his head. He too, understood what it was to huger for daily bread. He too, understood the struggle to pay taxes imposed by others. And yet, in the midst of all that, there was the clear sense that he was loved, that he was valued, that he was cared for by a loving Abba who wanted the very best for him—and who provided for his needs in generous and life-giving ways.
For those who were not poor, though, the song could be challenging, For them it raises questions: “How important are houses, and wealth, and land?” Are these things as important as Jesus? Are they more important? Do they get in the way of my love for and service to Jesus? That, I think, was the very reason that Mr. Shea sang this song. It was to prepare the hearts of those who, in just a few minutes, would be listening to the words of Evangelist Billy Graham. It was an attempt to plant the seed for the altar call which would come, in which women and men, young and old, poor and rich would be invited to make a commitment to place Jesus at the center of their lives.
The shocking words in the Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark, “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,” take us by surprise every time we hear them proclaimed! Perhaps our first thought is something like, “That is a lot to ask of anyone.!” And then, we might be tempted to try some mental gymnastics, “Of course, Jesus intended those frightening words for the rich young man with whom he was speaking.” Or, we might be tempted to say, “Those words were not meant to be interpreted literally.” We might even think, “I can’t do that!”
We are not alone in struggling with these words, they have been an issue of concern, debate, and even of heated disagreement among the followers of Jesus from the first day that they were heard to this present day.
These words proved to be transformative, when they found a receptive audience! Saint Antony of Egypt heard these words in church one day, and felt that, through them, Jesus was asking him—personally—to sell what he owned, give the money to the poor, and to come follow him. That is exactly what he did. And thus, religious life, as we have come to know it began in the wild and desolate places in Egypt.
Saint Francis of Assisi, struggling to understand what Jesus call to “repair my Church” meant, heard these words in the cathedral, and realized that they were addressed to him—personally—and embraced a life of radical poverty. Thus, the very life of the Church was transformed, renewed, and blessed.
Each of us will have to decide for ourselves exactly what these words mean, and what we are supposed to do about them. This is at the very center of our call, to put into effect the grace which we have received through the Sacramental graces of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist. This is not something which anyone else can choose for us. It is something which we, after prayerful reflection, must decide for ourselves. We are called, though, to remember, that whatever our decision, we are must be mindful of the poor, care for them, and serve them!
There are a few things which jump out at me from this passage, though, and I would like to share them with you today.
Are you not surprised by these words from Mark, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Now that is amazing! It is one thing to speak of a kind of generic love, “God love us all.” This passage, though, is very specific and precise—this young man—personally, specifically, individually, is loved by Jesus. And, it is out of love that Jesus speaks truth to him. Regardless of any other audience, Jesus tells him what he could do if he chose to follow after him and become a disciple. Because of love, Jesus invites him to a relationship of love and service. We know that Jesus loved his other friends deeply—and yet, we are not told that when he hear that Jesus invited them to leave whatever it was that they were doing and to come and follow him.
What might it mean to us, if we really believed that we were loved in this precise and specific way? What might it mean if we believed that when Jesus looks at us, it is with love? It might literally change everything. But that is not guaranteed. Remember that this encounter with Jesus does not end in the expected way. We do not see, in this passage, the calling of another Apostle; we see an apparent failure! The young person leaves sadly, and goes on his way. We would hope that the story does not end there.
Perhaps the young man later changes his mind. But perhaps he does not. Perhaps, like the other Apostles, he replies that this invitation is impossible! He does not hear the hopeful words which Jesus shares with them, “for God all things are possible.” In any case, whatever his decision—then, or later—that does not impact, in any way, the fact that Jesus loves him! St. Paul reminds us of this elsewhere, “There is literally nothing which can ever separate us from Jesus’ love!” Now that is good news!
In the most interesting encounters, which the gospel accounts share with us, there are often two stages to the story. In the first stage, Jesus will often dialogue with someone who comes to see him with a question. In this stage, Jesus draws on their own experience of struggling to be a person of faith. But then, unexpectedly, Jesus turns the question on them in an unexpected way. We, too, are taken by surprise and look on in astonishment as they struggle to understand what Jesus is asking of them, “Can I re-enter my mother’s womb, who is my neighbor, sell everything that I have and give the money to the poor?”
From this we discern a model. Jesus invites each of these persons to go deeper. He challenges them to lay aside a superficial understanding of faith–and to enter into a new and radically inclusive vision. He invites them to move from an “outward-focused” notion of some abstract theological concept– to a personal encounter with a God who challenges them to become involved with the issues that really matter here and now. An essential part of that challenge is to become involved with issues of justice, equality, and inclusion. In each case, the listener is invited to realize that Beloved Community includes persons whom they might not have been prepared to welcome! In short, in each of these encounters, Jesus invites people who probably thought they were “already converted,” to commit to new and ongoing conversion, to renewal, to ongoing growth, change, and transformation. He invites them to live holy lives marked by love of God and service of others.
There is something very different in this encounter, though. Something which does in fact, seem both addressed to this particular one person, and intended for a wider audience. In reflecting on this, we come to realize that each call, each vocation, each invitation from God is unique. God calls the rich young man to a particular and specific life. The same is true for each of us. We are each unique. Only we have certain gifts, talents, and abilities to offer. At the same time, only we have certain baggage which we carry. What is for me a potential impediment, struggle, or distraction from answering Jesus’ call will not be the same as the challenges which you face as you seek to find God, and to respond to God’s call.
We can learn, though, from this encounter. Jesus asks this young person to sell what he has. He does not ask him to just give things away to the poor. What does that mean? It means that he literally has to take an inventory. He has to draw up a listing of everything he owns–every single thing! He has to then put all this stuff on the market, find out what each item is worth, find a buyer, negotiate for a price which he is wiling to accept. He then has to accumulate all the money and count it up. What a lot of work! What an exhausting project. And yet, what an incredible insight. In most cases, we never have to do this. Instead, it is something which others will do for us after our death–when they sort out our “estate.”.
What does it mean for us to examine each and every thing that we own? What does it mean for us to evaluate the worth, value, and usefulness of all these possessions? What does it mean to clear away all the clutter, all the things which surround us? What does it mean to discover how much we really do own, possess, and control? What does it mean to ask essential questions? What is important to me? What matters most? What do I really need? Do all these things help me find happiness, joy, and energy? Or, are they distractions? Do they get in the way of my hearing God’s call and of saying yes?
The good news, of course, is that though this may feel impossible to us, it is not impossible to God. May we take the risk of running that inventory—as if though we really intended to sell everything we own. God will give us the grace to take that second step—whatever that means to us personally!
St. Benedict makes this very point in the Holy Rule, “Let us prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”