A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio. The gospel is the exchange between Jesus and the person sometimes known as the “rich young ruler”
This man and Jesus have to have had some history together. Their exchange echoes conversations that they have had in the synagogue and across someone’s dinner table. The man is caught on the cusp of conversion but, like many of us, he doesn’t really want to change. “What is it that you want from me?” he is asking Jesus.
And Jesus responds that he wants nothing from the man, only that he should follow the commandments of God, the commandments to love, to their logical limit, and that he should embrace the call to conversion that the Spirit has placed in his heart.
The episode ends in mutual sorrow. Jesus had come to love the man, and although he knew that the call was too much for him, he hoped against hope in his heart that at the last minute, the man would take the plunge and follow. The man had come to desire Jesus, and although he knew that his way was too much for him, he hoped at the last minute that Jesus might give him some other side route to salvation, and to face-saving.
There is so much anxiety in today’s gospel passage. The man is anxious not to lose Jesus; Jesus holds all the worry-burdens of love; the disciples are anxious about what this all means for them – will they lose the return on their investment, the all that they have put into following Jesus? Well, that depends what it is that they expect.
Contrary to the prosperity preachers, the blessings of God are not necessarily riches or ease of life, property, or influence. The ways of the world, especially of economic covetousness and corruption, do not bring the peace that passes all understanding.
It is difficult, I confess, to stand and preach this gospel from a place of relative ease in a country of relative wealth and damning inequality, in a church that has enjoyed some status through its generations, and that is not itself lacking in financial security, despite the day-to-day anxieties of the operating budget. This gospel is a challenge.
A person came into my office during this past week, while I was marinating in today’s readings: Amos with his scathing prophesies against the grasping great, and Jesus’ gentle admonishment of the man who was on the cusp of conversion. The person in my office had a lot to say about the churches and how they should carry on their business and what the money that you contribute on a Sunday and on other days of the week should be doing for the people, for the poor, for the good of God’s commandments, although they didn’t say it quite that way. The person had little faith that we were not using it rather for ourselves.
Now, I get to see almost all of your acts of generosity, large and small, as they pass behind the curtains. I know what some of you have given up in terms of respect and relationship to confess yourselves as Christians. And Jesus tells that you will not lose your reward, nor your recompense, for all that you have done for the sake of the gospel and to follow God’s commandments to their logical and loving conclusion.
But the person in my office, coming at that time and in that strange way, made me wonder whether they were sent as a prophet not to the individual person on the cusp of conversion, but to the church, to the parish, to the community.
Amos and the prophets, after all, were sent to preach to those in charge, not to each individual, but to the nation and its representatives. You have to wonder, if this country were to decide, as some already declare, that it was in fact a Christian entity, and if its elect were to hear the commandment to give up its wealth and its advantages to serve the poor and follow Jesus, what on earth would that look like?
More practically, the person got me to wondering: In the past several weeks, we have heard from a variety of people who have looked upon our church building and seen possibilities for ministry and service to the community that we may have room for.
We have heard from someone who wants to provide before and after-school accommodations for older children; from an organization that houses refugees and knows that we have an empty apartment; from a congregation, dwindled in size through the pandemic to a handful of faithful adherents, looking for just some small room to worship.
I do not know, yet, what will be practical and what will be reasonable for us to do in response to these overtures of interest. We hardly fill up our building at the moment, at this moment. You know that we have a new preschool tenant starting up, and that will be an adjustment because it is not the same program that was here for generations. I don’t know, yet, what will be workable, but our Vestry is working on those questions, and we will want to hear from you, too.
It doesn’t feel as though Jesus is asking us to give everything up, to give anything of much away, except a little access, a little exclusivity? But I have to confess that, at this moment, after that visit, it feels to me personally like a call to some sort of conversion, to some fresh thinking about how we can use spaces we no longer fully fill out for ourselves in partnership with other agents of the gospel, who see us, perhaps, as rich in resource, and as a sign of God’s providence.
Can I be honest? It feels risky even saying any of this out loud. But again, nothing is decided upon: I need your wisdom at least as much as the visitations of strangers. And I know that in each moment of decision and conversion and steadfastness, that Jesus loves us, and looks upon us with every affection, and wants us to succeed in following him, wherever that may lead us.
The man in the story is caught on the cusp of conversion, teetering on the brink of repentance, swaying toward Jesus but anchored by the lifestyle he has always known, the way it has always been.
And Jesus looked at him, and loved him, and wanted nothing more than to set him free. “Follow me,” he said. “Follow me.”