“The One Thing Lacking” by Ken Burton

October 10, 2021

Today, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost for the larger Church and the fifth and next to last Sunday in Seekers Recommitment Season, offers what is for me a particularly rich group of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. We heard peter read Job’s passionate cry of abandonment and despair. That was followed by the author of Hebrews portrayal of Jesus as able to “sympathize with our weakness,” whatever it may be and however embarrassed we might be about it. Then there is Psalm 22, which we did not read today. It builds on the passage from Job, offering the words of one who feels totally separated from God, words that Jesus quoted as he was dying on the cross, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” I seriously considered working with this passage, along with the one from Job because I have recently become aware of how very painful this condition, feeling totally separated from God, can be and of how many people suffer from it. I decide not to do that first, because, widespread though it is, it is not really my story and, more important, because I felt drawn to the Gospel passage, Mark 10:17-31.

I’m going to focus only on verses 17-25 of the tenth chapter of Mark, the story that is commonly referred to as that of “The Rich Young Ruler”. The Inclusive Bible, translated by Priests for Equality and from which Judy just read, provides a slightly different emphasis, using gender neutral terms to refer to the inquirer and omitting any reference to this person being a “ruler”. This slight shift makes it easier for some of us, or at least for me, to identify with the inquirer. Like them, I have done a decent job of obeying the Ten Commandments for most of my life, and I have sometimes wondered what more is needed for me to be a true follower of Jesus, what we now call a faithful Christian. Jesus is aware of his inquirer’s affluence. This was particularly important in a society that was strictly divided between the very few rich and the many poor, with no sign of what we today call a middle class, and makes what Jesus asks his inquirer to do is, therefore, even more startling and radical: “Go and sell what you have and give it to those in need; you will then have treasure in heaven. After that, come and follow me.”

This story has often been read as a polemic against wealth. This reading is reinforced by Jesus’ remarking, “How hard it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of God!”  Alan Brehm, in The Waking Dreamer, notes that “When we can admit our attachment to our wealth, then we can remember that the saints and heroes of our faith have consistently taught us that the only way to free ourselves from our wealth is to give as much of it away as we possibly can.”

This more literal reading of the passage must be taken seriously, particularly by those of us who live in a society where the gap between those at the financial top and those languishing near its bottom is growing increasingly wider, and the financial stress on those in the middle gets ever greater. Notice, however, that Jesus does not regard affluence as an absolute prohibition to faithfulness. In response to a further question from his disciples, Jesus reminds them and us that “with God, all things are possible.”

Further, I would like to suggest that to focus on the “wealth” aspect of this story is to partially miss the point. Jesus raises the question of his inquirer’s affluence not because of any evil inherent in wealth but because Jesus knows that for this particular person, his property is the primary obstacle to his being a faithful follower. As Matt Skinner, who teaches New Testament at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis points out:

The rich man’s story and Jesus’ hyperbole remind us that all aspects of what it means to follow Jesus rankle our deeply ingrained instincts toward self-preservation and security. Jesus does not try to deprive the rich man of his money and power. He asks for more. He tries to claim the man’s very own self.

It is the obstruction to faith that is the problem. For this particular person, the obstruction happens to be financial, but that is at best a secondary issue. The real concern here is what is it that gets in the way of being a fully committed as a follower of Jesus. This is particularly relevant to our Recommitment Season here at Seekers because, however long we may have been committed as a Member or a Steward, or not, we each have our own obstacles to fuller, richer participation in the Body of Christ. For each of us there remain obstacles on the Way which can retard or even totally block further progress. Certainly if you are among those of us who are relatively affluent, as I now am, those holdings can be an obstacle to our growth in faith, but they are not necessarily so and there may well be other aspects of my life, as well as yours, which are more problematic in this Recommitment Season.

Last Sunday John Morris identified one of these obstacles as “cultural capital,” and mentioned “the riches of education, talent, privilege and opportunity” as examples. Any or all of these can be so important in our lives that they interfere with a fuller commitment to building Christ’s Body, but it should also be noted that they can also be tools for that construction. Honestly sorting out whether these resources are tools or obstacles on our faith journey is a life-long exercise in discernment.

To be clear, I am not trying to deny the ability of wealth or property or any of the bright, shiny objects that John listed to be a major obstacle to being a faithful Christian, whether here at Seekers or anywhere else. My point is simply that neither financial capital nor cultural capital are the only possible barriers, and that even if I have none of them, some other aspect of my life may be getting in the way. Actually, it’s more than just “may”. Our very humanity dictates that, at least in this life, we will all fail to be the full, deep, joyful people that God calls us to be. So I would suggest that for each of us, exploring what it is that we are unwilling to change in order to be that person we are called to be is an important spiritual exercise, and Seekers Recommitment Season provides a great opportunity to do that.

Kayla McClurg, in her collection of reflections on the lectionary gospel passages, notices that “many small aspects of myself give me my sense of identity, help me to feel that I am who I am, while actually some may be keeping me from discovering who I truly am.”

So what are the aspects of my life that are getting in the way? If Jesus were telling you or me what we needed to do to more fully enter God’s kin-dom, what would he say? I’m not going to attempt to answer that question for you, but only to suggest that it might be another topic for your reflection and prayer as we approach Recommitment Sunday next week. I am going to suggest some of my own answers both as an act of confession and with the hope that they may also be relevant for you.

One of the aspects of my life that I believe is a barrier to being a stronger, more committed follower of Jesus is my resistance to discipline, particularly disciplines, also known as practices that require daily attention. If I can do it only once a week, like showing up for Sunday worship or participating in a meeting of my mission group, I seem to be OK, but disciplines that require daily attention are major problems. And this is not just about so-called spiritual disciplines.

  • I do not brush and floss my teeth on a daily basis, which is why in the last two weeks I have had to have eight cavities filled. (I joke that I have “wholey” teeth, but that does not impress my dentist!)
  • To the chagrin of all who care about me the most, I do not exercise regularly.
  • I pray in a sporadic and spontaneous way, but certainly not regularly or daily.
  • I do not have a meditation practice.

I have explored in great detail in therapy the psychological origins in my childhood and adolescence of my resistance to doing any of this daily. I believe I understand it really well, but that has been of little help in changing my behavior. If, as Thomas Aquinas commented, the essence of the Christian life is to know God’s will and then to do it, I am quite sure that my stubborn and irrational resistance to daily practice is a major obstacle to faithful living. If you do not have this particular problem, I congratulate you and invite you to reflect further on the aspects of your life that are getting in the way of you being a faithful Christian.

Another personal trait that can be a problem in this respect is repressed feelings which then come out in destructive ways. Passive/aggressive behavior is one example. As for me, I have recently had it brought to my attention by my therapist that I am lonely. I was surprised. “But I don’t feel lonely,” I said. Now it is certainly true that since my wife Jane’s sudden death almost four years ago, I have had moments of strongly missing her and feeling lonely. But these have become somewhat less frequent as time has passed, and I would not identify loneliness as an issue for me. “But that is precisely the point!” came the response. Because I can’t consciously feel the loneliness, it scrounges around in my psyche for other ways to express itself, indirect ways or “sideways”. What happens is that the loneliness messes up my judgement about possible relationships with women, causing me to see them, or imagine them, where they don’t really exist. This distorts my view of the woman in question and may spill over into a mistaken understanding of what is or is not happening in other areas of my life. If I am to be a faithful channel for God’s love in a hurting world, these kinds of errors in judgement are not acceptable, but there they are and they get in the way. I need to be able to feel my loneliness consciously and painfully. Matt Skinner, who teaches at Luther Seminary, comments that

The rich man’s story and Jesus’ hyperbole remind us that all aspects of what it means to follow Jesus rankle our deeply ingrained instincts toward self-preservation and security. Jesus does not try to deprive the rich man of his money and power. He asks for more. He tries to claim the man’s very own self.

So, I ask again, what is it that claims your “very own self”, that gets in the way of your faithful response to Jesus’ invitation to “Come, follow me!” In closing, I want to reiterate that we must not get stuck on any of the specifics of this problem, not on Jesus’ emphasis on wealth, or John Morris’ “bright, shiny objects, or my resistance to discipline or psychological issues. You have your own, and I suspect that by this point in my sermon you may have become aware of what they are. So please join with me as I conclude with a moment of prayer.

Holy One, you know for each of us, as Jesus knew for his inquirer, what aspects of our lives block us in our faithful responses to your call to commitment. We ask that you work with each of us to not only be aware of these obstacles but to let go of them, to give them up, as we make our commitments and recommitments to Jesus as the Christ and to Seekers Church. Amen.

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