The Rev. Deacon Tim Jones was with us at St. John's this past weekend.
Here is his very fine sermon.
I have a strange confession to make. My close friends and family already know this about me. I cannot parallel park. I simply cannot do it. It’s like a brain block with me. It’s not for lack of trying or practicing on my part. I have taken all the tips and performed them just as instructed and still I end up either partly in the street or partly on the curb.
Now if you know anything about the downtown area of my hometown, Hendersonville then you know that means about half the parking spaces there are not available to me. My wife will say, “There’s one. It’s open. Get it.” I will respond with, “I think I will just keep circling until one of the regular ones becomes available.”
Many years ago, my late grandmother was determined that she was going to teach me how to parallel park. I think it was a source of both embarrassment and exasperation on her part that her grandson could not do such a simple, easy thing.
My grandmother owned a Lincoln Town Car. Now you have to understand this was in the very late 1980s when they were still these enormously long land yachts. Do you remember those? She set out to prove to me that if she could parallel park her metal monstrosity then surely there was no reason I could not learn how to park my little Toyota.
We were on a narrow section of 3rd Avenue just off Main Street. She walked me through steps as she attempted to fit this huge vehicle into a spot that seemed way to small for it to ever happen. She did it. She slid that thing in there so flawlessly that it was just stunning to behold. She looked at me as if to say, “There, that’s how it’s done” and the next thing she did was to open her door as she looked at me and ---“Boom”---right into a car passing by on the street.
Yep, I sure got a valuable driving lesson that day. If you are going to parallel park on a busy street then it pays to look before you sling your door open into traffic!
She was so focused on teaching me how to parallel park. She did everything right and she did it perfectly, but in focusing on all that she let one small detail slip her attention and it was a costly mistake. You know what they say about education being expensive!!
In today’s Gospel reading we have a wealthy young man who has it all together. He is wealthy, powerful and his claim to Jesus that he has lived in accord with the moral code of the Hebrew Scriptures is never challenged by Jesus. He’s crossed every “t” and dotted every “i”. He has done everything right.
Did you notice how he phrased his question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” I suspect that he was used to getting things done. He is a doer and what he does, he does well. Just the way he asks the question and then his follow up to Jesus,“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” I think he may have thought Jesus was going to say, “Nothing, son, you are so impressive and moral…you have already done everything perfectly. If anyone has eternal life then it surely is you.”
Mark’s Gospel reading today says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus loves him so he tells him the hard, hard truth. Jesus is not being mean when speaks. Understand that what Jesus says next is not meant to just blow him off or discourage him. It is the truth spoken in love to this young man. It is meant to set him free.“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing”
. What? This guy has everything. He has acquired wealth, power, respect. He was not used to hearing that he lacked anything. Maybe other people, but not him. He has it all together. What in the world could this man not have?
Jesus puts his finger on the one thing that he was lacking and had nothing to do with acquiring yet one more thing. It had to do withletting go of spending his life acquiring yet one more thing.
Just like my grandmother who had focused on every little detail of the parallel parking and performed it flawlessly, but in doing so she missed one vital detail, so this young man had done everything perfectly, but he missed one very important thing.
It was not about what this young man owned. It was about what owned this young man. The issue is always about who or what owns the vision of heart. The material things were not the problem. They were simply the symptom. Jesus was not trying to impoverish this man. He was trying to liberate him from the grasp of what really held him in bondage so he could give him what he was asking for and so much more!!
He offers him the treasure of becoming one of his followers. Think about that. This fellow could have joined the ranks of the disciples. This is the very same call that we heard Jesus make when men like James and John and Peter dropped their nets to set out on the grand adventure that ended up changing the world.
But in order to lay hold of that offer, he is going to have to let go of his death grip on his stuff. There is always a cost and a promise to everything. In this case the young man could not celebrate or even see the promise because the cost stood in the way and blocked his vision of the gift that Jesus was offering him.
But the invitation to follow Jesus is not only about sacrifice, it’s also about a call to experience the joy of eternal life---now not just in heaven one day.
Later on in Mark 10 we hear Simon Peter telling Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold.”
Yes, these men left behind the safety and stability of their nets…and in doing so they changed the world. They gave up what must have seemed like so much at the time, but they ended up making such a deep impact for the kingdom of God that they are on our stained glass windows and we name our churches after them.
I have heard far too many sermons on discipleship over the years that only focused on that cost of discipleship and never celebrated the promise of discipleship.
The challenge of living as a follower of Jesus is not simply the challenge of the sacrifices that it often requires, but the even greater challenge of trusting that Jesus is asking us to follow him to something wonderful.
The great tragedy in this story is that this man’s stuff so owned him that he could not see what was of even more value. It eclipsed the true value of the gift that Jesus was offering him. Jesus was offering him the opportunity to be a part of his mission in this world.
The call to be his follower is always a call to the experience joy of living for something bigger than ourselves---to touch and transform human lives. The real issue that stands behind the call to follow Jesus is whether or not we can become so convinced of the goodness of God that we dare to risk letting go so that we can receive the gift of God. Are we willing to believe in the radical generosity of God and trust that what God is asking us to make room for is so much greater than what we cling to for dear life?
When it gets cold outside the freezing temps bend and break our rules at the Rescue Mission. In other words, we move heaven and earth to make sure no one has to stay outside. That’s because it is often literally a matter of life and death. One of the sad things about gathering with my counterparts from various Rescue Missions around the country is that I have discovered that we all seem to know people who have died of exposure. It’s serious business.
Years ago, on a winter’s night when everything was in deep freeze, a man came to the door and asked to check into our overnight shelter. No problem. I sat down with him and started asking him about some of the basic information we have to get from everyone. He interrupted me. “I won’t stay if Fred can’t stay.” “Who is Fred?”, I asked. He replied, “My pet fish.” “You have a pet fish? We don’t allow pets in the dormitories for many different reasons.” “If Fred cannot stay then I am staying.” “Where is Fred?” He reached into his backpack and pulled out one of those large peanut butter jars with the red tops that screw on. Sealed up inside it was some cloudy water and something floating around in it that sort of resembled a fish. It was clear that Fred had gone on to his reward some time previous to that night. I had one of those moments where I looked around to make sure I was not on candid camera or something. I fully expected the man to burst out into laughter and say, ‘I am just kidding.’ He did not. “If he can’t stay, I am leaving.” If that fish could not stay right with him he was going out into the cold night. No matter how much I tried to reason with him and get him to understand that what I was offering could literally save his life in exchange for his fish, he just was not buying it. I looked out into the lifeless winter night and then I looked at Fred and then there was this long, uncomfortable silence. Of course, he and Fred both stayed. The next day I caught all manner of teasing from people over checking a dead fish into our shelter program.
I once had the exact same scenario over man’s lawnmower that he was pushing. It was a rusted out old lawnmower that had probably not started in years, but the fellow told me that it was the last thing he had in the world and he was not going to let someone take that from him as well. I ended up having to double chain it up with a lock inside our locked utility building in order to convince him to stay. He was seriously going to sleep outside in the freezing cold before he was going to risk letting his lawnmower go.
We look at that and clearly we can see the heartbreaking illness that would cause someone to risk freezing to death before they would let go of a dead fish or a rusted out, old push mower. To them, in the way they saw the world those items were more valuable than even life itself. They could not see it any other way.
How often have I done the same thing with things that from the divine perspective must be just as silly to cling to?
The call to be a follower of Jesus is a call to let go of our death grip on the things that we are comfortable with---the things that provide us with a sense of security identity--- so that we can lay hold of the amazing opportunity to share in his work in this world.
It’s not really about what we own. It’s about what owns us.
My brothers and sisters I ask us all to hear the good news that the call to be followers of Jesus is both frightening and wonderful at the same time. It is always an invitation to begin anew because the Gospel is always about new birth, new beginnings and fresh starts. It’s about the opportunity to touch the lives of others for God. This young man was a good, upright person, but Jesus does not play games about are we good enough or worthy enough or qualified to be his followers. He cares less about where we have been and what we done and more about where we are willing to go from here. He always only asks one thing…are you willing to let go and follow me?