A sermon for October 14th 2012, preached at Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
There’s a novel by Nick Hornby which I read some years ago called How to Be Good.* In it, the protagonist, an ordinary, grumpy, middle-aged man, undergoes a sudden transformation which makes him want to be a better person. It is a simple idea with profound consequences. From the first time he gives away his and his wife’s cab fare home from a night out, and she is horrified at the idea of taking the bus or walking home, he continues to push his family and neighbours (he doesn’t seem to have friends, exactly) further and further out of their comfort zones and into the realms of, at best, eccentric, and, in the eyes of many, crazy and irresponsible generosity.
It is definitely not a religious book, but it does get you thinking about what we choose to do and to neglect; where the gap lies between what we could do to change the world and what we do; and what our families and friends would think of us if we slung a rope across and bridged that gap.
The question raised by the book, and I think that it’s the same question raised by the rich young man in today’s gospel, is how good is good enough? How much do we have to do to say that we have done enough? How can we know that we have earned our place in heaven, or even on earth?
Frederick Buechner, in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, puts it this way:
“The trouble with being rich is that since you can solve with your checkbook virtually all of the practical problems that bedevil ordinary people, you are left in your leisure with nothing but the great human problems to contend with: how to be happy, how to love and be loved, how to find meaning and purpose in your life.
In desperation, the rich are continually tempted to believe that they can solve these problems too with their checkbooks, which is presumably what led Jesus to remark one day that for a rich man to get to Heaven is about as easy as for a Cadillac to get through a revolving door”**
But it’s not just the super-rich that want to solve the world’s problems with their own resources. It’s not just the wealthy who want to buy love, or reassurance, or comfort, or benign dreams. Some of us do it without great wealth but with great expenditure of time and energy, feeling that if we can only do enough, all will be well. Some of us do it with alcohol or other drugs or easements, hoping that one more shot will do the trick of making everything seem alright, manageable for a while. Some of us do it by denial; if we don’t drink, if we don’t eat, if we don’t go out tonight, we’ll feel better about ourselves. The trouble is that the voice which pushes us to do more, give more, be better to save ourselves can be the same one that, if my only job were to stay in bed all day, would be saying to me, “You’re not doing that right. Your sleep is too restless. Your dreams are rubbish.”
The good-enough thing: it’s the same syndrome as the rich young man, just with different symptoms. The young man was sad because, with all his wealth, with all of his scrupulosity with regard to the commandments, he could not be sure that he could save himself. He had done it all: all that was asked of him, but he needed more, because he knew that there was more.
In a strange and slightly screwed-up way, he feels himself to be as tormented as Job, despite his riches; like Job, he wants to contend with God, to plead his case, to know that he is justified; and he cannot in his heart find God in order to do that. He is as alone and as defeated as that other righteous man.
He is as desolate in is wealth as Job is in his desperation.
And of course it is better to do without Job’s suffering. Of course it is more comfortable to have power and wealth and health than not. Of course he is not as lonely or as miserable as Job, and we would all rather be this one than that.
The point of the comparison is not to say that it doesn’t matter how comfortable or otherwise we are, what afflicts us or doesn’t; the point is that there will always be something still missing unless and until we identify God as the one who is good, and who can and does make us good enough.
It is no coincidence that the Psalm which we sing today, the psalm that cries out to God in despair and yearning, is the psalm which Christians know chiefly because of Jesus’ words in his darkest hour: my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.
The Psalmist, Job, the rich young man all cry out to a God whom they cannot see nor feel close by, whom they try to find but cannot, and in the case of the rich young man, if he carries on trying to find God in his own riches and goodness, he will fail, and he will carry on crying out in vain.
It is no coincidence that Jesus knows that Psalm and uses it. He has been where the psalmist and where Job and where this young man have been. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” Jesus has been desolate and miserable, he has felt abandoned, and he has been tempted to put his trust in wealth, fame, status, political power; all of those temptations were offered him when he was driven out into the wilderness after his baptism. But Jesus’ answer was God: that the love of God is the source of all strength and goodness; that the promises of God are trustworthy and not to be tested; that the purposes of God outweigh any other demands or burdens or propositions that may be put to us.
Jesus says, “Only God is good.” And Jesus says that what is impossible for mortals is not impossible for God; “for God all things are possible.” And he tells the young man, “Then come, follow me.”
“Come, follow me.”
The young man went away grieving, because he could not find it in his heart to give up trusting in what he had and go out on a limb to follow Jesus instead. And Jesus loved him anyway, and grieved for him.
At its most basic, the challenge of this gospel is to identify what we are trusting instead of God, what we cannot let go of, even to help others, even to save ourselves. What are we relying on to save us instead of God? Because while the challenge to us of this gospel might be to give away more money – it might be – for many of us, the challenge is probably something else; most of us do not identify with the super-rich, as this young man would have.
The challenge to all of us, whatever percentile of wealth we fall into, is to place our trust in the right place, in God, who alone is good and who alone makes us good enough. The challenge to all of us is to follow Jesus, to walk in his ways, loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves, generously and extravagantly; forgiving as people forgiven, healing as people refreshed, proclaiming the good news of God who loves us.
And I know, from just a very short time with you, that this is a generous and loving community. So the challenge for us as a parish is to share that love where God is calling us to share it; to trust God to act in the world around us, and to see where we are called to join in God’s work, to bring our gifts to lay at God’s feet. To seek out the places where Jesus is already walking through Euclid and our other communities, and to follow him, follow his trail through our own neighbourhoods. Because we are no good on our own; we can’t save ourselves, let alone the world. God alone is good; and God will help us to do God’s work, if we only follow Jesus.
It’s a discernment that calls for prayer and for sharing the promptings of God’s Spirit that each of us is offered – because God does speak to us. It’s work that calls for humility, allowing that the least of us might just have the most to offer, that the quietest voice might offer resonant wisdom. It’s ministry that calls for a high degree of trust in God – what is impossible for us by ourselves might indeed be part of work that God will make possible despite our weakness. It’s work that we will do together over the next weeks, months, years, working out together God’s purpose for us in this place.
At the end of the book How to be Good, the protagonist is still trying to find his balance; that rope bridge that he has thrown across the chasm between what he should be able do to change the world and what seems actually possible in the reality of daily, family life seems to be like a tightrope. Discipleship can place high demands on us, and it is an ongoing journey; we don’t resolve once to follow Jesus and everything else is easy; the way of the cross was never easy.
But unlike the character in the book, we are not trying this alone; we have a community of faith to help and to guide one another; and we do not have to rely only on ourselves to make things right. God alone is good, and we are called first to love God, and live into the goodness that God offers us.
* Nick Hornby, How to Be Good (Penguin (USA), 2002)
**Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, revised and expanded edn (HarperCollins, 1993), 98