Homily for Sunday, October 14, 2018
Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
Just before Labor Day and the beginning of the school year, in a New York Times article titled, “Here’s Your Assignment,” a group of writers shared which books they would like to see in a high school reading curriculum. John Green (author of Turtles All the Way Down) said he would like to see Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. “It’s a brilliant, endlessly rich dystopian novel that pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale,” he writes. Elaine Welteroth, the former editor of Teen Vogue, nominated Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. “The history of our country has always been taught from the perspective of the colonizers,” she wrote, “but this book sets out to present the untold stories of the victims of colonization.” Sabaa Tahir (An Ember in the Ashes) suggested Nicola Yoon’s, The Sun is Also a Star. Andrew Solomon (The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) gave his nod to Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority. Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing) suggested a collection of poetry, Good Woman, by Lucille Clifton. Reading through the maybe ten suggestions on the list, I was surprised to see that one author, Tara Westover (Educated: A Memoir), had suggested the Bible. Of her choice Westover wrote:
Particularly the old, beautiful translations (I personally enjoy the King James). I am no longer religious, but I regard it as a great tragedy that more people don’t study the Bible. As a work of literature the Bible has everything: poetry, philosophy, storytelling, myths, fictions, riddles, fables, parables, allegories. Its sentences both provoke and obscure, often resisting a single interpretation. They do not yield easily to our understanding. I’ve long felt that there is great value in reading a text that does not open itself up too easily, that keeps some of its secret meanings hidden. What you learn is a critical skill, the patience to read things you do not yet understand.
I suspect we can relate. So often when we hear the Scriptures, “its sentences… [do] provoke and obscure;” and “they do not yield easily to our understanding.” Leviticus or Ezekiel or Revelation may come to mind as books that “keep… their secret meanings hidden,” but plenty of passages in our lectionary likewise do not “open themselves up easily:” “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matt 18:3). “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Matt 20:12). “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
While pleased with Westover’s endorsement of reading the Bible, I do have one pushback: it seems that she is trying to keep the scriptures at a safe intellectual distance. Reading the Bible, according to Westover, is a matter of “study” and “interpretation,” of “understanding” and discovering hidden “meanings,” of learning the “critical skill” of “patience [with] things you do not yet understand.” But to approach the Bible as something merely to be understood or interpreted, or as the object of an exercise in finding meaning, is to sell the scriptures short. For there are some passages—never mind not opening up easily or obscuring, or even provoking—[there are some passages] the experience of hearing which is to be pierced, “dismembered” even, and left with no place to hide. To hear these passages is so devastating—and “devastating” is not too strong a word—that going forward our lives are not the same. This morning’s lesson from Hebrews speaks of such passages:
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
I understand how Westover might want to keep the scriptures at a safe distance —Who would want to be “laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account?”—but to approach the scriptures only as something to be understood is to miss that the scriptures—like God, whose word they are—are not meant merely to be understood but experienced. For the scriptures—like God— invite into relationship.
I don’t know if it is intentional on the part of the lectionary or a coincidence, but today’s gospel lesson is one of these devastating passages. Listen again to what Jesus said to his disciples:
Children, how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God… It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
In this teaching Jesus goes right for the jugular of our money and possessions. Many of us—perhaps all of us—experience at least some degree of “unfreedom” in regards to our money and possessions: the thought of giving them up tends to threaten. And I wish I could say that, “In an hour or so we are likely to forget about this passage, and it will trouble us no further.” But… “The word of God is living and active.” Like a sword this passage has pierced us, and having heard it we cannot put ourselves back together again. And if your experience is like mine, each time I hear this passage, rather than it getting easier to hear, the words instead enter even more deeply, leaving me fewer and fewer places to hide.
Even though this passage may pierce, I am noticing that Mark, in his quirky way, is careful to set a tone of love in this passage. Notice how Jesus, looking at the man, “loved him.” Notice how much eye contact Jesus makes in this passage: Jesus is said to “look,” be it at the man or at his disciples, three times over the course of just a few verses. (Jesus makes eye contact here more than anywhere else in Mark’s Gospel.) Notice how Jesus addresses the disciples: “Children, how hard it will be… to enter the kingdom of God.” Today’s Gospel is the only time in Mark that Jesus addresses the disciples as “children.” And notice how Jesus, when the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” doesn’t say, “No one!” or “Most people are going to be out of luck.” Jesus rather assures them that, “With God all things are possible.” This passage may pierce and judge and lay bare— our experience of hearing it may not feel good—but this passage is safe. This passage is filled with love, with care… with health.
As I consider Jesus’ challenging words and Jesus’ love, I am reminded of that line from Mary Oliver: “From the complications of loving you… there is no… return.” Relationship with Jesus is complicated; sometimes our experience of hearing Jesus’ words is piercing. And we didn’t ask for this: “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” Jesus says. But if I’m honest with myself, would I have it any other way? There is love with Jesus. And as challenging as relationship with Jesus is, as piercing as his word may sometimes be, I want this love. This love makes me better; with this love, I am more alive.
Am I ready to sell all that I have and give the money to the poor? Is it really easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven? (I am rich; most of us here are rich!) I don’t know. But in this passage I experience an invitation: to allow Jesus’ words close and to wrestle with them. There is love in these words! And even though they may pierce, I know, deep-down, that these words are safe, even healthy. These words were spoken to me, by one who loves me, and who wants to be in relationship with me.
And these words were spoken to you, by one who loves you, and who wants to be in relationship with you. Why not this week wrestle with these words and ask Jesus to help? And maybe ask him, too, to let you experience how much he loves you?
Mary Oliver puts it well, about this love that pierces and requires wrestling and invites us to let go. “Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?” she asks. Here is Oliver’s poem “A Pretty Song:”
From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.
Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?
This isn’t a play ground, this is
Earth, our heaven, for a while.
Therefore I have given precedence
To all my sudden, sullen, dark moods
that hold you in the center of my world.
And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song.
And I say to my heart: rave on.