Goodness Gracious, Put It Down

Proper 23b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to the rich young man, ‘You lack one thing...’+

Have you ever been shopping, and arrived home with your arms full of packages, only to be faced by the locked door, and the realization that your latch-key is in your purse or your trouser pocket? The only way to get into the house is to put the packages down while you get out the key and open the door. In effect, this is what Jesus said to the man who came running up to him in today’s gospel, asking him what he had to do to inherit eternal life.

This man, as the gospel tells us, had many possessions. You probably didn’t have to be a prophet to tell: no doubt he had a fine suit of clothes, maybe a couple of servants following him at a respectful distance. Here was the proverbial “man who had everything,” and yet Jesus knew he lacked the one thing he needed most of all. He was like a man accidentally locked in a storeroom full of canned food, starving to death because he didn’t have the one thing he needed — a can-opener. What this man needed was the grace to give up what he had so that he could follow Jesus. His arms were so full of his possessions he couldn’t set hold of the key to eternal life. He went away shocked and grieved — he couldn’t let go; he couldn’t put it down, though his life depended on it.

Now, it would be easy to say that this gospel only had to do with the wealth of this world — the physical possessions that weigh us down and keep us from following Jesus. We might remember poor old Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” He learned too late that the wealth that he should have used for the well-being of his community had instead became a “ponderous chain” he built up link by link in this life, and which kept him shuffling and clanking in his dreary afterlife, doomed forever to witness the suffering that he might once have eased — he “took it with him” and in the grave it kept him.

Yes, it would be easy for us to look at this gospel story as a warning for somebody else — for the rich — since few if any of us here are wealthy by the world’s standards. And it would be easy for me to turn the gospel on its head, and pat myself and all of us on the back just as the apostles did at the end of the reading.

But I would rather invite all of us to look at this message from the gospel a little more closely. Look more closely, and you’ll see that Jesus’ message wasn’t just about the wealth of this world, but about another kind of wealth, a kind of wealth that can get in our way and fill our arms with so many bundles we can’t make it through the door.

The man who came running up to Jesus was carrying more than gold and silver. This man was carrying a mountain of invisible packages, things he didn’t even know he was carrying. And they were good things, too! That’s part of the problem. This man came up to Jesus, knelt before him, and called him, “Good teacher.” And right off, Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?” That should get our attention right away. What an odd thing for Jesus to say! But this odd saying of Jesus is the key to today’s gospel, to see that it is about more than money. What we have before us is nothing less than the difference between goodness and grace.

This man came up to Jesus with his arms full of his good deeds. And let’s make sure we’ve got that clear: he was a good man. He had done many good deeds. Jesus looked upon him and loved him. He was a model citizen, a faithful and obedient son of Moses, one who, as the prophet Amos said, “loved good, and established justice in the gate.” And yet his arms were so full of his good deeds, he was so proud that he had kept the law, that he couldn’t see the most important thing of all, the thing he’d neglected in his race to be a perfect “self-made man,” a good citizen.

The one thing he missed was the grace of God — a free gift that you can’t buy with all the money in the world, the free gift you can’t earn with all the good you do or try to do. This man was so conscious of his good works that he forgot his need for grace. As the collect for today reminds us, grace must “always precede and follow us” so that “we may continually be given to good works.” So that... Without that grace, no good can come.

This man thought the good works he did were his — he forgot that without God’s grace he could have done nothing at all worth doing. For not just his good works — but everything he was came from God. He thought himself a self-made-man, but he forgot that even his existence was owed to God, and God alone: God made him, and no one else.

And God would continue to give him all he needed. But when Jesus told him the one thing he lacked, to give up everything he was carrying and to follow him, trusting entirely in God’s grace and providence — not his own wealth, his inheritance, his skill, his wisdom — but in God’s grace, with no visible means of support, he just couldn’t do it.

+ + +

Have you ever sent someone on a shopping errand? Perhaps a youngster, or a brother or sister, or your spouse? You might say, “Oh, Alicia, would you run down to the store and get me a bottle of Pine-Sol?” And off she goes, and an hour later comes back with shopping bags brimful of all the wonderful things she’s found, the incredible bargains, and the once-in-a-lifetime offers — she’s got everything, except, can you guess? — the Pine-Sol! Now, she meant well; she made some wise purchases, perhaps she even saved you some money on a few bargains. But she didn’t bring what you asked for.

Jesus asks for one thing from us, one thing more than anything else — he wants our hearts, our trusting hearts — to follow him. Yes, he wants us to do good works, and he honors and welcomes those good deeds; he loves us for them as he loved the rich man in the gospel, who had done good with all his might from his youth on up. But Jesus, our gracious Lord, our savior who gives us grace without counting the cost, knows that our salvation is a gift that is in his hands to give. And with it all the rest will come, all those other things from God — the houses, brothers and sisters, and fields (with persecutions!) — all of that will come if we first give up what we have. We are not saved on account of our goodness — goodness has nothing to do with it, as Mae West once observed. Only grace — only Christ’s blood shed for us, can purchase our salvation — and this is a purchase Christ makes with what is his: his life, his blood, laid down for us. When we depend on our own goodness, on our own store of virtue, on our own spiritual riches, we are in danger of becoming too rich for Christ’s blood; and of forgetting that all the good we do comes from him in any case.

+ + +

Let me tell you a parable. There was once a man who wanted to become a great fisherman. He was a successful businessman, who had always dreamed of his retirement and the happy hours he’d spend fishing. So when he finally retired, he bought the most expensive fishing tackle, the finest high-tech carbon-fiber rod with the flashiest stainless steel reel, the most elaborate tackle and exquisite lures and lines of finest monofilament. And he went out to fish one day, but he couldn’t for the life of him catch a single fish. And to his amazement, when he looked downstream, there, in a quiet eddy of the very same stream, was a little barefoot twelve-year-old boy with a bamboo stick, a length of string, a can of worms, a bent safety pin — and a pile of fish! And the man yelled out, “How is it that a little kid like you with a stick and a piece of string can catch all those fish and I can’t get a nibble?” And the boy hollered back, “Well, Mister, I guess you have to be where the fish are!”

To be where Jesus is—that is the one thing necessary. And to be where he is, you have to follow him, right? — because he doesn’t stay still, does he? Jesus is on the move, and to follow him we need to be light on our feet, not weighed down with possessions or pride, but free to follow him where he leads. You remember the old hymn, “Where he leads me, I will follow; where he leads me I will follow...” Well, he’s leading; but are we following or just singing? We need that one thing — grace, the grace to follow him. It’s the same “one thing” Jesus told Martha — another person who had her hands full — remember Martha? — Jesus told her that “one thing” was needful: to be with him. That one thing is grace, the grace to be where Jesus is, to follow him and to accept what he offers: without this grace all the good deeds in the world will get you nowhere. But with this grace, we can go anywhere our Lord would have us go! Because he is marking the way before us, and all we have to do is be free enough to follow him.

This is the wonder of grace: It is impossible for us to save ourselves, but God, through grace, will save anybody who wants to be saved. With God’s grace, we need do only one thing: accept Christ’s invitation to follow him to the banquet. Light on our feet, we can follow him down the king’s highway, empty-handed and open-handed, ready to help our brothers and sisters, ready to do good, not because we win heaven thereby, but because the gracious good news of God is too good to keep to ourselves— and the more of it we give away the more of it we seem to have.

We have a choice to make. Would you rather enter into life empty-handed, or spend eternity with the camels parked outside — the camels who can’t fit through the gate? I think I know the answer. I know where I want to be, and I think you do too. “Where he leads me I will follow...”

So as you journey through this world, stay light on your feet and keep your hands free. Don’t stop doing good, but once you’ve done it, forget about it and put it down. You remember what Jesus said that in doing good we ought not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Don’t carry your good deeds around; keep both hands free to take Jesus’ hands in yours when he reaches down into the grave to lift you up to the risen life. If you do have too many possessions, if wealth is getting in your way, for the love of God, put it down. If you are conscious of your own good works, if you feel like maybe God owes you something because of your goodness, then for the love of God, and goodness gracious, put it down. If you carry anything, anything at all, then for the love of God let it be nothing other than the cross of Christ, the cross you take up each day as you follow him on the road that leads to the heavenly kingdom of his Father, to whom as is most justly due, we now ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for evermore.+

Be Opened

SJF • Proper 18b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the deaf man, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.
Have you ever found yourself the object of someone else’s sharp accusation: You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying! Perhaps at the end of a long day you’ve been sitting in front of the TV while your spouse has been telling you about what’s been going in their day — then there’s that sudden pause, not the pause that refreshes, but the one that alerts you to think, “Uh-oh,” followed by the magic words that bring us fully back to the present: “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying!”

Or perhaps you remember the experience of your school days, especially in that deadly time after lunch from one to three. I don’t know what Einstein or Stephen Hawking might say, but I think those hours had something to do with a distortion in the space-time continuum! Maybe teachers have a special gravitational force! Certainly you find yourself and your eyelids getting heavier and heavier the longer the teacher talks. You even find that your mind is getting further and further detached from your body. Then suddenly you hear the voice of the teacher say, “Miss Martin, can you answer the question?” And with an awful sinking feeling you know that not only don’t you know the answer, but you don’t know the question!

+ + +

These aren’t examples of being hard of hearing, but being hard of listening. When we find ourselves accused, “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying,” it isn’t quite true. We’ve heard, all right, we just haven’t listened. Unlike the man whom Jesus cured, it isn’t our ears that need to be opened, but our hearts and our minds.

Listening is more important than hearing — it is the reason we hear, the goal and end for which hearing exists. God has given us the gift of hearing so that we might listen, understand, and ultimately act to do his will. And yet how often, like a tired spouse at the end of a long day, do we allow our weariness to transform us from human beings into couch potatoes?

Is there such a thing as a pew potato? Haven’t we all known times when our Sunday morning worship, instead of filling us with energy to do God’s work, instead lulls us into a celestial snooze, contented to be in God’s presence, drifting on a spiritual cloud. Then, suddenly, something in the Gospel, some phrase in a hymn, I’d like to think maybe even a word from the preacher, pierces our hearts like a voice that says, “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying!” and we are called back to awareness of the importance of our call to serve the Lord our God: to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. Thanks be to God for that wake-up call when it comes, for this is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, the gift of awareness of his purposes for us, that we might become, as Saint James says in the epistle we heard this morning, “a kind of first fruits of his creatures” — that is, a result, an end, a purpose: For just as listening is the goal of hearing, the harvest is the goal of the planting. God does not plant the seed of his word in vain, but in order that it might bring in a plentiful harvest.

+ + +

Saint James describes a kind of spiritual deafness, and gives us helpful advice on how to avoid it. He begins, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak.” I’m reminded of an old proverb, one of my grandmother’s favorites: You were born with two ears and one mouth — so listen twice as much as you speak! And it isn’t just talking with your lips that can impede your listening: there’s body language and brain babble, too. Have you ever tried to talk to someone who was doing this? [hand on hip, looking into space, sighing] You know what it’s like. That’s mighty eloquent body language, and it tells me “I can’t hear you” just as effectively as the schoolyard version [fingers in ears, la-la-la]. The fact that you see one in the boardroom and the other in the schoolyard simply shows how universal is the tendency to not want to hear, to not want to listen.

Then there’s brain-babble. That’s what happens when you tune out the person talking to you and start listening to your own inner monologue instead — this is where we’re liable to be caught short when we lose track of the exterior conversation because we’ve been talking to ourselves on the inside, rather than listening to our brother or sister right there before us on the outside.

+ + +

Saint James mentions one more cause of spiritual deafness: “Be slow to anger,” he counsels. How hard it is to listen when we’re angry, particularly if the person we’re trying to listen to is the one we’re angry with! And what solution does Saint James offer? “Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

That’s a gardener talking, you know, one who expects a good crop: Saint James is telling us to weed our hearts; to pull up anger by the roots, cultivating and tilling the soil of our souls to be pure good top-quality topsoil to receive the word of God when it comes to be planted, and able, then, to bear much fruit. Saint James counsels us to treat anger in our hearts as we would weeds in a flower-bed: out of place, and good only for pulling up and throwing out.

Then Saint James makes his final appeal: after you hear the word, don’t stop at being a hearer, but be a doer! Get into action! This is where the harvest comes in. Otherwise you’re like some silly soul who looked in a mirror and saw he’d forgotten to button his shirt or do up his fly, but as soon as he walked away from the mirror forgot what he had seen and walked out into the street half dressed.

We talked last week about being properly dressed for the service of God, dressed in the armor of God that is provided to all who believe in him. And this week we are reminded that those who hear and bear God’s word and prepare for action, but who never act, are, as the saying puts it, all dressed up with no place to go! It’s time to stop looking in the mirror and admiring how fine we look. It is time to get to work!

+ + +

As I told you a few weeks ago, the Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion has invited me to join with a group of four other theologians and leaders in reconciliation and peace-making from around the Communion, under the leadership of the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Our task is to help the Anglican Communion engage in a process of listening to each other, meeting together as Christians should who care deeply about each other. Our first meeting is next week in London, and I will be traveling next weekend and so will be away from Saint James. I ask your prayers for my travel and our meeting. I will carry all of you in my heart — you who come, many of you, from different provinces of the Anglican Communion yourselves; and I will carry the other Saint James in my heart: that other Saint James, the one from whose Epistle we heard this morning, for he has much to say about listening.

I know that in all of this I have been equipped, as all of us have, with the armor of God and ears to hear. Brothers and sisters, we are all dressed up and do we have a place to go whether to London or Staten Island or Co-op City or just down the block! We have work to do, God’s work. We have a mission to accomplish, God’s mission to bring all people into unity with each other in Christ. We live in a world so full of noise that people have grown deaf to the sweet sound of God’s voice calling to them from afar, or even whispering in their ear. We live in a world so overgrown by the weeds of rank self-absorption that the seeds of God’s grace are finding fewer and fewer places to grow.

But we know that God has put the tools into our hands to go forth and help clear those weeds. He gave us the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. I’d like to see any weed stand up to that! And we know that God can use us to speak the truth in love, to speak even in a babbling, self-absorbed world, to put what we hear in church to work when we go to the world. To call for justice for the oppressed, for food for those who hunger, for freedom for the prisoners, welcome for the stranger, sustenance for the orphan and widow.

This is the message we carry to an inattentive world. We will speak clearly — but we will not have to shout or raise our voices. For with God’s implanted word in our hearts, we know how powerful it is when we simply pause for a moment, and then say to that world in God’s name, “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying.”+