Four years ago today, I underwent a long surgery for what we at the church office now call “Not Cancer”; for those who were a part of the congregation at that time, you probably remember the collective prayers that you all held for me as I navigated that long surgery and healing. I still have the literal hundreds of cards I received from that time, and every Fall around this time I reread them. I also have cards from three years ago, when I broke my leg and was figuring out how to navigate life on one leg and celebrating the Eucharist with ‘church on the ground.’ All this is to say, that this time of year is tricky for me; early Fall is when lots of difficult things have happened in my life, and because of that, I’ve developed a habit of reading through Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart around this time every year.
Chodron, a Buddhist nun, is known for her tender, brilliant, and piercing writing on the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment. It’s an important book for me, and I recommend it heartily. Recently, a line that was highlighted from a previous reading caught my attention in a way I had yet to experience it before: “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” It must have stuck me in past readings because in the margins, the tiny word ‘oof’ was is written. It takes courage and respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently, she’s right.
This truth was standing out to me when I looked ahead to today’s gospel reading. In it, we hear the story of the rich man run up excitedly to Jesus. He had lived a good life, but it he wanted to be sure of his salvation, and he came, knelt before Christ, and asked him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Clearly this is a man of great faith and trust in Jesus. Christ responded to him with the basic commandments: no murder, adultery, stealing, lying, or fraud, plus honor your parents. In his eagerness, the rich man said that he had kept the commandments put out before him, and Jesus sees him, gently and honestly sees him, and loves him.
Looking at him, Jesus responds in love by naming the one thing he lacks to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell all that he has, give the money to the poor, and then to come and follow him. This eager man, who had many possessions, was shocked by Christ’s response, and went away grieving. He asked Christ what he needed to do, so willing to do anything, and yet when he’s told to give away his financial gain, he walks away. He’s so close to the kingdom of God, but when told what one thing stands between him and God’s kingdom, he walks away grieving. Oof.
And in truth, it is not just his response that caused Chodron’s quote to come mind, but my own: “the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”
This struck me because this story about the rich man who comes to Jesus is so often used to guilt or shame church folk into giving more money to the church, even though that’s not what Jesus is saying. This push to look at myself honestly and gently hit a nerve because it caused me to wonder what is the one thing which I lack? The rich man lacked unbridled generosity with his financial means to the poor, which forces me to ask am I courageous and self-respecting enough to really ask myself what I lack. And I know that there is not one, but many things that hold me back from the fullness of God’s love; what are the things that I lakc? What do I need to give away to have access to God’s kingdom? What parts of my life do I need to have courage to see honestly and gently?
There have been hundreds of interpretations of what Christ meant when he said to this man, give it all away, and I truly think it’s a lot simpler than what many folks have thought. I think when Christ says it’s easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than it is for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God, what Christ means is that money does not a good Christian make. In fact, wealth can be a hinderance to experiencing the kingdom of God. Because the kingdom of God requires us to give it all away; the kingdom of God is one wherein which radical, unbridled generosity is the ruling idea.
With courage and respect, when you look at your own life gently and honestly, what do you see? Where do you see gaps between the kingdom of God in which all people are truly valued the way that you live your life. We all have these gaps, I promise you, we do. It may not be wealth for you, but I know that it’s something; we are all lacking in something. Each of us has something that holds us back from experiencing the fullness of God’s love.
Maybe it is wealth; maybe it’s the idea that you and your family need a safety net that comes at the cost of others hitting rock bottom. Maybe it’s fear; maybe it’s this idea that you need to live a life that’s safe and comfortable before living into the kingdom of God. Maybe it is control; maybe what you need to give away is the illusion of control over your life by asking God’s guidance and direction. Maybe it’s a bunch of little things that add up to something that feels immovable, but I promise it’s not, because for God all things are possible. Whether it’s your wealth, your fear, your need for control or something else, whatever the thing is that stands in the way of you experiencing the fulness of God’s kingdom, give it away. Give it all away. Give it away with courage, looking gently and honestly at yourself, and trusting that with God all things are possible.
 Chodron, 31.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on October 10, 2021 for Proper 23B on Mark 10:17-31.