Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Trinity 2021
Today we meet a keen spiritual seeker. We see his enthusiasm in how the man runs up and kneels before Jesus. He is eager to learn and receive. Jesus takes him through the commandments and the man says he has ‘‘kept all these (commandments) since my youth.’’ It then says, ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
This isn’t going to be a main theme of the sermon but notice how Jesus looks and loves at the same time, ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him.’ The divine gaze is the gaze of the lover, not the moralist. Jesus looks with the insight of love right into this rich man’s cluttered-up head and heart and tells him to let go of all the things he carries around with him. And, in the moment when we meet this man at least, he cannot do what Jesus suggests, ‘he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.’ The man’s possessions posses him and there is no space, no room in his heart, no room at the inn, for God. Here in our particular modern capitalist society we have, of course, many possessions, or those who are lucky enough to have some money do. Mobile phones, computers, TVs, trampolines, Alexas, not to mention furniture and books and water purifiers and nutri-bullets and extension flexes and broken down toasters and kettles and pots and pans and fit-bits and all the stuff we do not want or need and which we trip over. As a modern society we are cluttered up and weighed down with things. And the rich man will have had his own version of all that material weight just described.
Now at this point the preacher could neatly wrap the sermon up with a little bow and make for the trite moral, which would go something like, don’t get overly materialistic and serve God and you could all safely and soundly fall into deep sleep as the moral was tediously expounded.
Jesus says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The problem is this: let’s say we give away all that we have, or a lot of it, even some of what we are most attached to. Even if we do all that, we will find that we are still carrying a lot of stuff. I may empty my bank balance for the sake of the kingdom but my mind would still be possessed by so many possessions. The most difficult things to give away are those invisible things we carry around with us called thoughts, opinions and convictions. Those things called life stories; those things called regrets or fears that return to you again and again or nagging, nibbling thoughts that you don’t think but instead the thoughts seem to think you. We might go for a walk, unencumbered with backpack, but on that walk we will drag with us all the thoughts which weigh us down like lead. We may walk up a hill and drag our regrets behind us. We may go down the same hill, carrying our fears for the future in our arms. We are rich in thoughts. Thoughts buzz and twirl and fragment and return and attack and this thinking, again and again, keeps us so lost in thought we find it hard to notice we are in God and God is in us. When we hear in today’s Gospel of the rich man having ‘many possessions’ we may also think of Martha in Luke’s Gospel who is ‘worried and distracted by many things.’ Both people are, in their way, enslaved to things material and mental.
Jesus says, “Children, how hard it is 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.” This is not a moral lecture. If we are weighed down with what we have, and weighed down by who we think we are, we will be so chronically attached and distracted we won’t know how to enter the kingdom because we won’t be able to even notice it. Just hold in your mind the image of passengers on a train. Many of these passengers are hunched around, locked onto, their phones. These phones are extensions of our minds; they are places of scattered thoughts, entertainment, speculation and work. But the problem is that an angel could walk through the train and many would not notice the angel because they would be lost in their phones, lost in their thoughts if you like. If we are locked onto the phone, or locked away in our thoughts, how do we have any space to know we are in the kingdom of God or that the kingdom of God is in us?
The challenge for us then is not to become rich, not to become ever richer in opinions and attitudes and outlooks, but to become poor. The wonderful thing about an empty space is God can expand into the emptiness, fill the emptiness with divine presence. But, for most of us, our heads and our hearts are not empty spaces at all. Our heads and our hearts are crammed with this and with that, they are piled-high with things-to-do, they are packed to the rafters with regrets, and there are tottering heaps of fears for the future all over the place.
It’s not easy to let go of our possessions. It’s not easy to let go of what we are attached to. But, with the grace of God, we can practice making space in our heads and our hearts so God may fill it, or we could say, the space we make inside ourselves allows God to well up within us. We can practice this poverty of emptiness in small ways. When we go for a walk we can try and let our thoughts go, thoughts actually float away like balloons if you let them, although thoughts also come back and hit us like boomerangs. The less we think the more spacious, open and poor we are to receive God who is the guest who is always there at the door of our hearts.
And when we pray we don’t have to exhaustingly think our way to God, burdened under our pleas and petitions. There are many ways of prayer where you practice being as open and as empty as possible so as to begin to sense God’s secret indwelling presence. Thoughts will keep coming into this way of prayer, because that is what thoughts do, but we can keep ourselves from being sucked back into the whirl of thinking by focussing on a prayer word or prayer words or our breathing.
There is a book called The Cloud of Unknowing and it’s a book about the practice of prayer and the practice of letting go of our thinking, which is letting go of what many of us think is one of our most priceless possessions. ‘God himself,’ the author writes, ‘no one can think. And so I wish to give up everything that I can think, and choose as my love the one thing that I cannot think.’ That ‘giving up everything that I can think’ is like the rich man having to give up his possessions, because unless we give up what we cling onto we can’t start to sense God’s presence with us. The author of The Cloud continues, ‘For God can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love God can be grasped and held, but by thought neither grasped nor held.’
We are all rich people in our way, rich in thoughts, opinions, and attitudes. Rich in worries and hopes, rich in regrets for the past and in fears for the future. These things we are rich in are the stuff of being human. They are, as the rich man in today’s Gospel shows us, hard to let go of. But Jesus asks us to let go, to let go of what we cling to, let go of the thought that keeps returning, to let go of the self-image we may cultivate in our heads. We will take up these things and thoughts again perhaps, almost certainly. But it is important to know we can actually let them go and make a space in our heads and in our hearts to sense and rejoice in the God who dwells within us.