Sermon, October 11, 2015

Through the Needle’s Eye
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
October 11, 2015 Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 90; Mark 10:17-31

Several years ago a Gallup poll asked people why they attended church. The leading answers were for spiritual growth and guidance, and to feel grounded and inspired. Some answered simply, “to worship God.” A small and declining number said they were just brought up that way—they went to church because it was what their family had always done. If we went around the sanctuary some of us might give answers like these, and others say we are here for the music or for our children or to be a part of a loving community or to serve.

We have many different reasons, but behind most if not all of them is a quest for something like what the man in today’s gospel story wanted, a quality we could call eternal life as opposed to our everyday surface life. It could be a connection to something that will give our lives meaning and purpose—a higher power that will enable us to be our truest, best selves. We could be looking to increase the peace, joy and love in our lives. We could be looking for spiritual gifts here and now because we are hungry for them, or long for our children to have them, or we just want to use them for God.

These are all part of the eternal life that we can participate in during our earthly life without having to wait to die. We may come thinking we are looking for these things, but it is closer to the truth to say that we come because these things are looking for us. They are not our idea, they are God’s idea that is planted in all God’s creatures, a longing for that eternal dimension that we would not want if God did not want us to want it. The First Letter of John says, “We love because God first loved us.” We seek God because God first sought us.

A story from the Jewish tradition tells about a child like the Prodigal Son. The father sent word through a friend begging the son to come home, but the son was too ashamed of the mess he had made of his life. The father sent another message saying, come as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to meet you. The rabbis say that God loves and seeks us just like that father.

There is a popular saying that goes something like this: “God loves us enough to welcome us just as we are, but God loves us too much to let us stay this way.” The reason God is seeking us and calling us to church is to transform our lives by filling them with more of what is eternal, more love and life and light. The reason God wants to transform us is not for our sake alone, but so we will be part of the movement that the ancient prophets and Jesus and his followers have led for thousands of years, the movement that is working to transform the world into a place more like God’s realm of mercy, justice and peace.

Quantity is not the measure of a church’s success, quality is. It does not matter how many or how few are in the pews. What matters is that those who are here are filling up with the qualities of eternal life. What matters is that we be transformed by finding something of eternity today, something in the music or silence or scripture, something in the children or joys and concerns or conversation over refreshments. What matters is that “we take the love we find here out into the world,” as our Identity and Aspiration Statement says, and we shine “like a lighted window” out into this community to transform it with the gifts God gives us to share.

Jesus shows us in today’s passage how to be transformed. Here are things to notice.

First, the man comes to the right person. Jesus is all about leading us to eternal life. But something funny happens. The man calls Jesus, “Good Teacher,” and Jesus rebukes him. He doesn’t want to be called good. He is human, and to be human is to have weaknesses, to be tempted, to be good sometimes and not so good other times.

This may seem like a picky and prickly point, but really it is the whole point. The man has tried to gain eternal life by being good. Jesus loves the man for wanting to be good, but obeying commandments is not what it takes to enter God’s realm. Thank God this is true, because if we had to be good to gain eternal life we might never be good enough. Or if we were that good, what would happen every time we fell back into imperfection?

The man has made a common mistake. Christians often think eternal life is about obeying rules. Church people cling to their traditions or beliefs as if getting everything right matters. Christ looks at us and loves us for caring so much, but he shakes his head and says the most important thing is lacking.

What we need is to let go. We need to let go of the pursuit to inherit or gain anything, even eternal life, and instead empty ourselves so that we can more fully and freely turn and follow Christ. It is not the man’s possessions, it is his possessiveness that is the problem, it is his attachment to worldly and spiritual goods, it is his whole way of being, his orientation to life.

The man is shocked and goes away grieving. He could have obeyed any number of additional commandments, he could have done great heroic deeds to raise himself a little higher toward the heavens, but to give everything away and lower himself to be the servant of the poor and to follow the humble, counter-cultural, scandalous way of Christ’s love—that was so much harder.

Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich, meaning every one of us with our many attachments, to enter God’s realm. The disciples rightly ask, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answers that it is impossible for us to accomplish on our own, but for God all things are possible.

Eternal life is a gift of pure grace. We do not and cannot earn it by being good. All we can do is open ourselves to receive it, going as far as we can toward God and trusting that God will meet us there.

Jesus shows us the way to open to grace. He modeled that way in his life, death and resurrection. The way is summed up by two Greek words I have talked about in the past, kenosis and metanoia. Kenosis means self-emptying, letting go of our attachments and ambitions. Metanoia means changing our hearts and minds and souls, turning them more entirely to God. In today’s passage kenosis is the giving away of all the man has and serving the poor, metanoia is the turning and following wherever Christ will lead. Kenosis and metanoia make us ready for God to take us through the eye of the needle.

This is the formula for transformation, emptying and letting go of everything and then refilling with the eternal love and life and light of Christ. Jesus says that those who do this will receive far more abundant gifts than those who cling to what they have, and not only spiritual gifts. Jesus says that God knows what you need to live. Strive first for the realm of God and God’s righteousness and all these other things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:32-33)

Jesus is teaching universal wisdom, shared by many religions. The 11th Century Sufi, Ansari of Herat, said, “Know that when you learn to lose yourself, you will reach the Beloved [meaning God or eternal life]. There is no other secret to be learned, and more than this is not known to me.” The Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi said, “There comes a time when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effect. This comes when he reduces himself to zero.”

There is a Buddhist story about a monk who lived on the outskirts of a village in Japan. One day everyone ran away to the hills because they heard that a ruthless samurai warlord was coming with his army, killing everyone who stood in his way. The villagers came to the monk and begged him to go with them, but he told them he would remain where he was.

The samurai arrived and was enraged to see that someone had dared not to flee. He came storming up to the monk and stopped with his sword an inch away from the monk’s heart. He screamed, “Do you not know who I am? I am someone who could run this sword through you without batting an eye!” The monk replied calmly, “And I am someone who could let you without batting an eye.”

The Samurai stood there for a minute, then bowed to the ground before the monk, and left the village in peace.

Emptying ourselves does not mean becoming ineffective, it means filling with the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Eternal life does not mean entering a gilded gated community in the sky, it means exiting the gated prison of our fearful self-interest and becoming free to embody Christ’s way of love and mercy, justice and peace. Imagine a congregation of people as free of self as that monk. Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

We do not have to do it ourselves. God wants to pull us through the eye of the needle, God wants to make us into a transformed and transforming congregation, a small group of committed followers of Christ who will change the world. Our part is to give our lives over as completely as we can, living so God can use us, anytime and anywhere.

Let us pray in silence asking God to help us through that needle’s eye and fill us with the love and life and light that do not die…