Saturday, October 10, 2015

Through the Needle's Eye

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, East Grand Forks, MN
October 11, 2015
Mark 10:17-31

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Two things strike me about this story.    First, it says that Jesus, “looking at [the rich man], loved him.”

Second, it says that the rich man “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions,”--and Jesus apparently just let him go.

Jesus did not run after this disturbed man.  Jesus didn’t try to get through to him.  He didn’t cajole him into conversing a bit longer.

No, Jesus just let him go….perhaps because some truths are simply too big to swallow in one bite, all in one moment.

We have no idea how the rich man’s life unfolded--but we do know that Jesus’ closest friends were all worked up about this whole unsettling episode.

The disciples, it says, “were perplexed at these words” of Jesus, because everything they’d been taught up to this point probably  suggested that wealth was a mark of God’s blessing, surely not a curse God inflicted upon those with wealth.

But Jesus didn’t show up to repeat old wisdom.  Jesus was, instead, always cracking open fresh truth—unexpected truth that Jesus came to embody and live out.

“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." (v. 25)

The great British apologist for Christianity, C.S. Lewis once said that “it is possible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle—but it sure is hard on the camel!”

Lewis thereby urges us not to write off this aphorism about the camel and the eye of a needle.  It’s not simply a memorable metaphor.

It is more than that.  Jesus is teaching us something here about how small, how reduced, how empty we need to become to gain entrance into that wide, full, free place called the kingdom of God.
God’s kingdom, God’s strong but gentle way of ruling over all things is so earnestly to be desired that we should seek to enter into it no matter the cost—even if it means shucking off everything we thought we needed to live.

The very thought of doing that would drive us all to despair were it not for Jesus’ promise here (the promise that the rich man didn’t stick around long enough to hear!) that "for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

This being emptied, this becoming small, this process of being reduced—we are not capable of that under our own power….but it can be and it is what God does in us, for us.

And that’s the truth we dare not miss here.    When Jesus says that “for God all things are possible,” he’s not snapping his fingers and saying “Abracadabra!”  Jesus isn’t just making all the stuff in our life that holds us back just go poof, like magic!

No, Jesus is uttering a promise that he intends to keep for us, with us and in us.

Jesus leads the way into this narrow, small path that leads to God’s kingdom.

Jesus first becomes small for us—small enough to descend from heaven and be implanted in Mary’s womb.   Jesus allows himself to be reduced to the form of a servant for us.    Jesus stoops over, walking the way of the Cross for us—continuing to the destination he is already pursuing here in this gospel story (v. 17)   Jesus allows himself to be edged out of our world, forced up onto a Cross, for us and our salvation. 

 It’s hard on Jesus to do that—like it’s hard on a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.  It’s hard on Jesus—indeed it is the death of him!

But Jesus’ overwhelming passion for us leaves him no choice.
Jesus accomplishes this impossible thing to rescue us from ourselves—to open us to the wideness of his kingdom.   Jesus who was rich beyond measure, “for [our] sakes…became poor, so that by his poverty [we] might become rich.” (II Cor. 8:9)

This good work that Jesus initiated at the Cross—God continues this good work in us.   And we are promised that God “will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)

Jesus who became small for us, Jesus the crucified and living one, works in us, to open us up to his kingdom…

….which is to say, Jesus is always among us, fitting us for his reign over all things by making us small enough, poor enough, reduced enough, bereft enough to come to him with hands that are completely empty.

So Jesus is at work in us, reducing us to proper size, whenever we confess our sins.    Repenting is one of the chief ways God gets us small enough to enter the Kingdom.   Saying we are sorry for the wrong we have done—saying sorry:  don’t we often say it makes us feel “about this big?”

Jesus is at work in us, emptying us of all the baggage that could hold us back, whenever we stoop to serve one another.    Bending over, as Jesus bent over his disciples dirty feet at the Last Supper—bending over to serve our neighbor Jesus gets us where we need to be—on our knees—serving the other.

Jesus is at work in us when we pray—because prayer, too, reduces us to proper size.   When we pray we say that we are not self-made people, we don’t have everything under our control, we’re always throwing ourselves into God’s gracious hands, seeking from God all good things.   “We are beggars, this is true,” said Martin Luther on his deathbed.

Jesus is at work in us when we give away our wealth, practice generosity toward the poor, give to charities, and bring our tithes and offerings to the altar here in God’s house.   When God leads us to reduce our bank balance, God is getting us empty-handed enough to fit through the “eye of the needle” gateway to God’s kingdom.

And perhaps most of all, most often in our days, God is at work in us in our daily lives, smack dab in the middle of our homes and families and other intimate circles of caring.

It is not, finally, in the splashy, headline-grabbing, heroic episodes of our lives that Jesus works best in us to make us small enough for the Kingdom….but it’s in the daily-ness of life: in the homely ways we live with one another in households, Jesus goes to work on us to make us fit for the narrow passageway that leads to the wideness of God’s mercy.

Luther, who had a penchant for shockingly earthy speech, declared that in household chores as menial as changing diapers, God is reducing us to Kingdom-sized people:  

 … “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself?...

“O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? 0 how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.”   

These words of Luther from his treatise on the Estate of Marriage in 1522 give voice to the surprising turn that meets us whenever and however God reduces us to the right size for God’s kingdom.    This “reducing” is actually a “right-sizing” and a “right-wising” of ourselves!

So it is that when God strips us of everything that’s holding us back from entering God’s strong and gentle Reign over all things—lo and behold we wind up richer than we ever imagined we could be, richer in the things that last, that cannot be taken from us….in this life or in the life of the world to come!

In the name of Jesus.    Amen.

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