+ I have to admit. As Episcopalians—as liturgical Christians—we have advantages and disadvantages. And, depending on where you stand, our lectionary—our assigned scripture readings for Sunday morning, is either an advantage or a disadvantage. I, as the Priest, or anyone who preaches here does not just get to randomly pick whatever scripture they want on a given Sunday. There are assigned readings. And we have no real choice in those readings.
So, the congregation sometimes has to sit through readings that are sometimes not readings we might want to hear for a particular Sunday morning. And let me tell you, sometimes those scriptures are not easy to preach.
Today, we get the full range of scriptures. We first of all get this beautiful poetic gem in our reading from the Hebrew scriptures. I love the prophet Amos.
“Seek good and not evil,” he tells us this morning.
“that you may live.
And so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you…
hate evil and love good,
and establish justice at the gate…”
Beautiful! That could be the motto for us here at St. Stephen’s.
Our reading from Hebrews also is just lovely:
“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
I could preach a couple sermons just on that one alone. Again, that also could be a motto for us here.
But then…then! Our Gospel reading for today. Did you listen closely to this morning’s Gospel? Were you uncomfortable with it? I was uncomfortable with it. We should be uncomfortable. We all should be uncomfortable when we hear it.
Jesus is, quite simply, telling it like it is. That’s not always a good thing. It is a disturbing message—at least, on the surface. I stress that: on the surface.
He makes three hard-hitting points.
First, he tells the rich man who calls Jesus “good” to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.
Second, he compares wealthy people getting into heaven to a camel going through the eye of a needle—a great image really when you think about it.
Finally, he tells his disciples that only those who give up their families and their possessions will gain heaven, summarizing it in that all-too-famous maxim: “the first will be last and the last will be first.”
For those who have—who have possessions, who have loved ones, who have nice cars and houses and bank accounts and investments,--these words of Jesus should disturb us and should make us look long and hard at what we have and, more importantly, why we have them.
But…is Jesus really telling us we should give up these things give us security? Does it mean that we should rid ourselves of those things? Should we really sell our cars and our houses, empty out our bank accounts and our savings and give all of that money to the poor? Does it mean, we should turn our backs on our families, on our spouses and partners, on our children and our parents? Does it mean that we should go poor and naked into the world?
Well, we need to look at it a little more rationally. Because, when Jesus talks about “riches” and giving up our loved ones, he’s not really talking what he seems to be talking about.
Do you remember the Gospel from last week, in which he was talking about Moses and the Law and divorce? Now, that was a difficult scripture as well. He was saying that if one gets a divorce and remarries, they are committing adultery.
I had an uncle who was divorced and remarried, who heard that scripture in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Fargo in the 1970s. He got up and left the church and never stepped foot in a church again in his life. I wish I could’ve told him then, what I’m going to say right now.
When Jesus talks of these things, he’s not really talking about what we think he talking about.
In today’s Gospel, he’s not really talking about the securities we have built up for ourselves. What Jesus is talking in today’s Gospel is about attachments. Or more specifically, unhealthy attachments. Having “things” in and of themselves are, for the most part, fine, as long as we are not attached to them in an unhealthy way.
Jesus knew full well that we need certain things to help us live our lives. But being attached to those “things” is a problem. It is our attachments in this life that bind us—that tie us down and prevent us from growing, from moving closer to God and to one another. Unhealthy attachments are what Jesus is getting at here. And this is why we should be disturbed by this reading.
Let’s face, at times, we’re all attached to some things we have. We are attached to our cars and our homes. We are attached to our televisions and computers and our telephones.
And, even in our relationships, we have formed unhealthy attachments as well. Co-dependence in a relationship is a prime example of that unhealthy kind of attachment that develops between people. We see co-dependent relationships that are violent or abusive or manipulative. People, in a sense, become attached to each other and simply cannot see what life can be like outside of that relationship.
And as much as we love our children, we all know that there comes a point when we have to let them go. We have to break whatever attachments we have to them so they can live their lives fully.
It is seems to be part of our nature to form unhealthy relationships with others and with things at times. Especially in this day and age, we hear so often of people who are afraid to be alone.
So many people are out there looking for that “the right one”—as though this one person is going to bring unending happiness and contentment to one’s life. Some people might even be attached to the idea of a relationship, rather than the relationship itself. We’ve all known people like that—people who are afraid because they are getting too old to settle down and still haven’t found that right person in their lives. It seems almost as though their lives revolve around finding this ideal person when, in fact, no one can live up that ideal.
See, attachments start taking on the feeling of a heavy baggage after so long. They do get in the way. They weigh us down and they ultimately make our life a burden. And they come between us and our relationship God and our service to others.
The question we need to ask ourselves in response to this morning’s Gospel is this: if Jesus came to us today and told us to abandon our attachments—whatever it is in our own lives that might separate us from God—what would it be? And could we do it? Because Jesus is telling us to do that again and again.
What the Gospel for today hopefully shows us is that we need to be aware of our attachments. We need to be aware of anything in our lives that separates us from God. Jesus today is preparing us for the Kingdom of Heaven. We cannot enter the Kingdom of God and still be attached to those unhealthy things in our lives.
The message is clear—don’t allow your unhealthy attachments to come between God and you. Don’t allow anything to come between God and you.
If Jesus came to us here and now and asked us to give up those attachments in our lives, most of us couldn’t to do it. I don’t think I could do it. And when we realize that, we suddenly realize how hard it is to gain heaven. It truly is like a camel passing through the eye of the needle.
For us, in this moment, this might be a reason to despair. But we really don’t need to. We just need to be honest. Honest with ourselves. And honest with God.
Yes, we have attachments. But we need to understand that our attachments are only, in the end, temporary. They will pass away. But our relationship with God is eternal. This is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel.
So, we can enjoy those “things” we have. We can take pleasure in them. But we need to recognize them for what they are. They are only temporary joys. They come into in our lives and they will go out of our lives, like clouds. All those things we hold dear, will pass away from us.
Let us cling instead, to God and to the healthy bonds that we’ve formed with God and with our loved ones—with our spouses or partners, our children, our family and our friends. Let us serve those whom we are called to service. And let us serve them fully and completely, without hindrance. Let make the attempt to see that what we have is temporary. Let us be prepared to shed every attachment we have if we need to. And when the day comes when Jesus calls us by name, we can simply run forward and follow him wherever he leads us.