Sunday, October 11, 2009

19 Pentecost

October 11, 2009

Mark 10.17-31
Did you listen closely to this morning’s Gospel? Were you as uncomfortable as I was hearing it? You should be uncomfortable. We all should be uncomfortable when we hear it. Because Jesus is, quite plainly, pulling out the stops for all of us. Jesus is, quite simply, telling it like it is. 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 what does it mean? 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? If it does, it gives a whole new meaning to “Christian Family Values” does it? Does it mean that we should go poor and naked into the world?

The fact is, I don’t think Jesus is telling us to do any of that. What Jesus is talking about here is attachment. 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. Unhealthy attachments are what Jesus is getting at here. And this is why we should be disturbed. Let’s face, at times, we’re all attached to those 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. We often hear about co-dependence in relationships—that unhealthy kind of attachment that develops between people. We see co-dependent in relationships that are violent or abusive. 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 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.

For several years in my twenties, I studied Zen Buddhism. It was a fascinating religion to study because in many ways, it is very similar to our own. What was especially interesting was how closely related some of the sayings by the Zen Masters were to the sayings of Jesus. One of the most important aspects of Zen Buddhism is its emphasis on ridding oneself of attachments—of cutting ties in one’s life. Attachments in Zen are viewed as one of the roots of unhappiness. After all, attachments bind us and, in some ways, control us. In Zen, the image one should use is that of a cloud—floating around without any attachments. That image is the ideal for Zen Buddhism, because it is the image of true freedom—freedom to practice Zen mediation and freedom, when the times comes, to die without attachments. As wonderful as that may sound to some of us, it isn’t very plausible.

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 everything we have right here and right now, and follow him, would we? If Jesus asked us to abandon our families, our friends, our cars, our bank accounts, the way of life we have become accustomed to—would we? Or more importantly, could we?

The fact is, Jesus isn’t going to call us in such a way. But what the Gospel for today hopefully shows us that we need to be aware of our attachments. We need to be aware that, one day, Jesus, will in fact, call us to himself.

One day, Jesus will take us to himself. And on that day, we will ultimately break all of our unhealthy attachments, whether we want to or not. And this is what Jesus, I think, is preparing us for. Jesus is preparing us for the Kingdom of Heaven, for that place in which everything we hold dear here on earth—along with all our sorrows and fears and frustrations—simply pass away.

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 away everything and follow him, 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. But the day will come when everything we have will pass from us.

We all know the old saying, “we can’t take it with us.” And we can’t. That money we saved over the years isn’t coming with us when Jesus calls us. That car, that house, that bank account is staying here when we finally shed everything and moved into the nearer presence of God. Even these bodies that we obsess over, that we stress over, that we despair over when they start growing old and start aching—even the attachment we have to this body will be broken.

For us, in this moment, this might be a reason to despair. But the fact is, how else can we come before God? How else can we truly and wholly appear before God, except naked and poor, trusting completely in the God who gave us all that we had in the first place. When we get to where we’re going, we go with a trust like we have never known before. We go with that trust that God will give us more than we could even ask for in that new life with God.

This is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel. So, enjoy those “things” you have. Take pleasure in them. But recognize them for what they are. They are only temporary joys. They come into in your life and they will go out of your life, sort of like that Zen cloud. All those things you hold dear, will pass away from you. Cling instead, to God and to the healthy bonds that you’ve formed with God and with your loved ones—with your spouse or partner, your children, your family and your friends. Make the attempt to see that what you have is temporary. Be prepared to shed every attachment you have if you need to. And when the day comes when Jesus calls you by your name, you can simply run to him and follow him wherever he leads you.

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