Pentecost 19 October 11, 2009

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15                                                             

Hebrews 4:12-16                                                                

Mark 10:17-31

This is the story of three people. They’re at the age where suddenly they realize they’re not kids any more, they can’t use the excuse that they’re still growing up, finding themselves. It’s that point where we say to ourselves, my life isn’t infinite, I need to settle down, set myself to something meaningful. For some people that time comes in their twenties; for some, in their thirties; for some it’s later on – for me it was almost 40. It can be any age. For some people, well, it seems never to come.

The first of these people we’re talking about is the man in the gospel we just heard. Now you might think that he already has his life together. After all, it says he has “many possessions” and he’s kept all the commandments about living an upright life – against murder, adultery, false witness, defrauding and the rest. In fact, we get the picture that this guy has been working his butt off to do everything right. What’s missing, we wonder?

Well, what’s missing is this thing he refers to as “eternal life.” Eternal life, you know, is an interesting thing. Yes, you can sum it up as heaven. But Scripture presents it as heaven that begins right in this life, here and now, with a sense of rightness, a sense of peace and wholeness, a sense of walking in the presence of God. This first man is missing this sense, and it’s that which he seeks, coming to Jesus.

Now the second person we’re tlking about is . . . Jesus himself. Remember he was about 30 years old when he began his public life of ministry in Galilee, a decision point for many people. We don’t know much about his earlier years. Matthew and Luke give us some glimpses that indicate there was something extraordinary and God-given about him from day one. John goes even further, making him the preordained Logos, a scarcely human Son of God. But Mark in his gospel, the earliest of the four and the one we’ve been reading this year, Mark shows us a very human Jesus who undergoes some sort of sudden conversion or life change at about the age of 30. There’s truth in all four gospel accounts, but Mark’s is closest to the experience of most of us I think.

So the Jesus in this account of Mark’s looks at the man who comes to him and loves him – identifies with him. He thinks back maybe to a similar moment in his own life, a few years earlier when he stood in the crowd on the banks of the Jordan River, listening to a prophet called John. John – the Baptist, they called him – was telling the crowds that they had to repent, that this was their moment of decision, that they had to let go of their old lives and open themselves to “the One who is to come.” And, as Mark presents it, this was the turning point for Jesus. He went down into the waters of baptism, washing away all his old indecision, his old temporizing, his old hesitations and doubts. And he rose from the waters a new man, committed body, mind and soul to living and proclaiming the kingdom of God. He rose from the waters a new man, and never looked back.

So most likely it was remembering this that Jesus said to the man standing before him, sell everything, let all your possessions go, and “then come, follow me.” Well, we know the rest of the story. What Jesus had done, this man was unable to do. He had, Mark tells us, too many possessions. So he “went away grieving.” To me, that’s one of the most powerful lines in the Bible. At a clergy day here a couple of weeks ago, one of the priests described herself as “just a bundle of joy,” ready to share happiness over the phone with any of her colleagues who was feeling down. She is in fact a cheerful, even ebullient person. That’s a quality much sought after by congregations looking for a priest. But while joy is important in the Bible, it never stands alone. There is also always grief. There are winners and there are losers. And winning and losing, joy and grief, are a matter of choice in Scripture – our choice. A matter of how we choose to live our life.

Which brings us to the third person I mentioned at the start of this homily. Do you know who this is? It’s you. And, of course, me. This is our life these readings are about. Our choice. We can choose eternal life – a sense of rightness with God, of peace and wholeness, of ultimate purpose and mission. Or we can go away grieving. And notice what those words really say. They say that we can choose for the life of following Jesus. Or we can just fail to choose or defer the choice or think it’s too hard a choice to make for us. The man in the gospel story doesn’t deliberately choose against Jesus; he just doesn’t choose for him. But the result is grief, a life missed. And that’s the way it is for so many people, isn’t it? We fail to choose for life in Christ.

Will it be that way for you and for me? You know, the Bible tends to present this life choice as a once and done for matter. And, yes, it is for some of us in some fundamental sense. But my own experience is that the choice needs to be “re-upped,” as they say in the military. It needs to be renewed periodically, refocused and retuned. Something in my life comes along and shows me how I’ve slipped, and calls me back.

That’s what this fall season in the Church is about, I think. Not just because it’s stewardship time – though, yes, your pledge is a sign, as we said last week, a sacrament of how you’re committing or failing to commit your life, and deciding about it brings us in touch with our life choices. But in a greater sense because as we approach the end of the Christian Year, just a month and a half away, the readings darken, fill with the thunder rumblings of Judgment, of the final reckoning that awaits each of us. Like the leaves turning color and falling from the trees, reminding us that life doesn’t go on forever. So . . . there’s this man grieving because he was too weighed down with possessions and commitments to choose eternal life. There’s Jesus, who chose. And there’s us.

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