Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
October 11, 2015
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 23B
In the still unfolding aftermath of the world’s worst financial crisis since the “Great Depression” of the 1930s, it would be very tempting to focus this morning on Jesus’ pointed words about the very real danger of wealth to the human spirit. Who can hear his admonition that, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” and not be reminded of the greedy and scandalous actions of so many titans of finance who, in recent years, have brought the developed world’s economies to the brink of collapse and the poor of the developing world to financial ruin? As Pope Francis reminded us during his recent trip to the epicenter of neo-liberal capitalism, the poor always pay the highest price for the excesses of the rich. As the prophets of the Hebrew Bible reminded us several millennia ago, we reap exactly what we sow—especially in matters of justice—and we are now reaping the bitter harvest of the culture of sleaze and greed that has been underway in the West since the 1970s. History may yet determine that all of that pious gloating over the collapse of Soviet communism under its own weight twenty-five years ago was a bit premature as we in the West now watch casino capitalism totter and reel under its untenable and inevitable cycles of largely unregulated boom and bust, along with widening inequality gap.
But, tempting though it is, that is not my theme this morning. What grabbed hold of my imagination and suffused my prayer this week as I meditated on today’s Gospel is Jesus’ love and compassion for the rich man in our reading, and Jesus’ genuine desire to reach out to him and to offer him another way of thinking about life and wealth, especially material wealth. Here is someone who knows and obeys all of the Torah’s commandments, and yet, according to Jesus, his obedience to the commandments is necessary, but not sufficient to enter the “kingdom of God”: that time and place in God’s future—inaugurated by Jesus—when peace and justice will reign in a “new heaven” and a “new earth,” and when “God will be all in all.” For that, Jesus tells him, a person must be willing to let go of everything in the confidence that, in the words of another of the Gospels, if we seek first the “kingdom of God and its righteousness,” then everything we need will be given to us. For God knows our every need and is eager to supply it; but on God’s terms, not ours. Jesus says as much in this morning’s Gospel when he reminds the rich man, together with his own disciples, that if they are willing to sacrifice family and home and land—the only real wealth for most people living in first-century Judea, Samaria, and Galilee—for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel, they will “receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions; and in the age to come eternal life. But many that are first will be last, and the last first.” And notice that Jesus slips in the warning “with persecutions,” for even in the service of the Gospel—especially in the service of the Gospel—there is no “cheap grace” or, to put it in the more prosaic terms of our own times, there is no “free lunch” during this first dawning of the “kingdom of God.”
So just where do we find the power to do these things? How do we act against the impulses and logic of our fallen, but not forsaken human nature and the seductive counsels of our so-called market economy? What should we do when every instinct within us tells us to seek our security first; to play by the rules and the “hidden hand” of the marketplace; and only then attend to matters of the spirit if time and inclination and resources permit? “Eternal life” and the “kingdom of God” may be all well and good, but is there not the little matter of the necessities of life in the here and now that require our constant attention? We all need to eat, yet here is the itinerant sage from Nazareth, without a single possession or even a permanent place to lay his head, telling us to invert the order and logic of our “market economy” and our acquisitive human nature, driven by our needs for safety and security; affection and esteem; power and control.
My friends in Christ, Jesus’ “Way” of servant witness and sacrificial, suffering love is definitely not the way of the world and, to quote the Fool in King Lear, “That way madness lies.” Or, so it seems, at least. And yet, that’s just the point that Jesus is making in this morning’s Gospel: It is contrary to our fallen and distorted human nature, and completely at odds with everything taught by our consumer economy, to follow the example and path of Jesus. And we cannot do it alone. We need the love and the grace of God to do these things, for only God can work our transfiguration and restore us to the “b’tselem,” the “image and likeness of God.” Only the grace of God who, as Jesus reminds the rich man in this morning’s Gospel, is the only good that is Goodness Itself, can make us fully human. Only when God is God can humans be truly human. This too flies in the face of our therapeutic culture, drowning in expensive so-called self-help programs and doomed autonomy projects. But Jesus, whose compassion and love for both the rich man and his own disciples is matched by his brutal honesty, tells us what every adherent of the fabled 12-Step programs comes eventually to know: “With humans, it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” And only love—the Love of God Incarnate—can convince us of this central fact of human existence and empower us for the life of sacrificial, suffering love and redemptive solidarity with the tottering world to which God summons us. And this morning’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us precisely where we will find “mercy and grace to help in time of need”: not at some earthly throne of glory, but at the “Throne of Grace”!
So, here we are this morning, gathered at the Holy Eucharist, this foretaste of the “Heavenly Banquet,” the “Marriage Feast of the Lamb,” to be fed through the unmerited goodness of God by the Body and Blood of Jesus the Christ. This is God’s chosen means for nurturing the life of the spirit within us. This is the way that God has elected to fill us with the amazing grace and power to participate in the risen life of Christ, who already is the perfection of humanity and the full realization of the “kingdom of God.” In the words of Saint John Paul II in his great, inaugural encyclical, The Redeemer of Humankind, “It is Jesus Christ who reveals humankind to itself.” And by clinging to this same Christ through the sacramental life of the Church, by making his very life our own, we find the means and the grace to become what we already are in potential: “the glory of God fully alive in Christ,” to quote Saint Irenaeus. Unlike the rich man, whose “countenance fell” and who “went away sorrowful” at Jesus’ invitation to put first the “kingdom of God and its righteousness,” we can choose another road, a different course, a higher way: We can give it all away, trusting that God knows all our genuine needs and wants to fulfill them. But this radical choice for the Gospel is only possible through God’s sustaining goodness and love and grace.
Last Sunday, during our commemoration of the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, we were reminded of the Christian mandate and privilege to become good stewards of God’s “very good” creation. As we ponder and pray over the next few weeks about the stewardship of our own time, talents, and treasure in the direct service of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Church, it may be worth recalling those very wise words of Saint Teresa of Avila that “we possess absolutely nothing that we have not been given.”