A sermon for the 21st Sunday after the Pentecost
Job 4:12-16, Psalm 22:1-15, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”
This psalm, a cry of lament, a cry of pain, anguish, abandonment, a cry of distance, a cry into the silent void, reaches out to us today. You might recognize it for its most famous quoting by Jesus on the cross. You might recognize it because it feels personal, it feels remarkably familiar. The experience of this lament is not foreign to us. We experience the reality of this psalm. We wonder, sometimes aloud, why? Why so far away, so far removed? Can you hear me? Can you feel my pain? Do you see the trials and tribulations I am facing in this world? Do you see the trials and tribulations I face because I choose to follow you, to radically follow your way even if it’s not the popular version of following you? Do you see my attempts to follow you, and failing so miserably? Do you see my attempts to follow you, and going away weeping at the demands you place on me in following? Do you see me?
We stand next to Job and proclaim:
“Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me.”
We stand with the man who asks “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
As if there is something that we can do to guarantee our spot, as if there is a simple set of rules and regulations that we follow, boxes to check, to insure our positioning for everlasting life.
Today’s lessons fully encapsulate the enormity of the ask that is following Jesus Christ. This is a demanding ask. This is an exacting ask. And, this can feel like a very isolating and lonely ask as we take it up today. Our very souls are laid bare before God, we cannot hide anything about ourselves. We cannot hide when we turn away. We cannot hide when we sidestep what has been asked of us. We cannot hide when we come up short in living into the call that is before us. And, we cannot hide when that call rocks us, leaves us grieving, leaves us questioning whether God is truly with us, because that call is so radical, because that call is so counter-cultural, because that call is so exact and we are anything but.
Some have tried to lessen the blow of today’s gospel lesson by inferring that the man who comes before Christ leaves grieving because he is greedy or has some inherent inability to give up those human possessions in order to follow Christ. But, what if he leaves grieving not because he is so tied to these possessions but because he fully realizes how hard it is to really follow Christ, and it shakes him to his core.
When we are shook to our core, our response is not typically to jump up and shout with joy. This experience of the man leaving grieving must hit home with us, because we realize we too likely do not live up to the expectation that is the radical call to follow Christ. We too must be shook by what Christ is demanding here today in order to gain eternal life. We live in this world that is built up by structures and expectations that are not of God. As active followers of Christ we strive to find a balance in following Christ, with the necessities of being in this world. We cannot divorce ourselves of everything, because we must be able to live and move within this world, to be respected, to be trusted based on an identity, on a position, on a point of power or privilege.
But, isn’t Christ saying today that divorcing ourselves of this world is exactly what is expected and required of us in order to follow?
Christ does not tell this man to find balance in his life. The man is already doing everything necessary under the law. And, that’s great but it’s not enough. No, to follow Christ requires more than just following what you’re supposed to be doing, it requires a giving up of yourself in order to fully serve another. So, how can we live into this? How do we inherit eternal life? How can we be saved?
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
God’s ability to save us trumps our ability to save ourselves. That’s the kicker really, no matter how much we try to save ourselves, by following the rules, by following the call, by living into every expectation set down in the teachings we have, the task of saving ourselves is basically impossible. But the task of being saved is nothing but possible for God.
God hears our cry of lament. God hears our accusations. God listens to our bitter complaints. God sees our well-meaning efforts. God hears our grieving at understanding the immense task that is truly following Christ. And in all of this, God remains present with us, God does not abandon us even as we feel abandoned. God does not abandon us even as we wonder if what is happening in our lives, if what is pushing in around us from all directions, is a sign of the absence of God.
God does not abandon us. We might abandon God from time to time. We might forget that God is readily present if we simply turn to God. But God never abandons us. And it is within this understanding that we are called to humble ourselves and seek to follow the radical call of Christ that is left for us.
We are called to seek more for those who have less.
We are called to advocate for the least and last.
We are called, and this call challenges us to live beyond the boundaries of this world. The man leaves Jesus, grieving for he had many possessions, because he has worked very hard within the boundaries of this world to live a godly life and a good life, to follow the commandments and to benefit from his own self-reliance to gain possessions, to be comfortable. All of this work is for naught. All that he has done to establish himself within the boundaries of this world must be sacrificed. It is the weight of all of this time and energy and effort to gain that causes the grief within this man. It is not the loss of those possessions but rather the realization that everything he has done has been for himself as much as it has been for anyone. It is the realization that what Jesus calls us into moves beyond ourselves, asks us to forgo ourselves for the other. It is the realization that what Jesus truly calls us to stands in direct contradiction to this world, and it is a calling that we are unsure we can ever fully realize.
We have to try though. We have to accept that this call of Christ is all but impossible. We have to accept that even if we live into this call we will experience times of feeling abandoned, of having biter complaints, of being laid bare. And through all of this, through our striving to live into this call, to seek and serve the least and last, is where we will find God waiting for us, to carry us over the line and have the impossible fully realized.
We are not the first. We are not the last. It is our call as Christians to recognize that we are not called to be either. Our call as Christians is to challenge the first, to challenge the boundaries of this world, to challenge the structures of our world that seek to build up the gathering of possessions, that seek to pay lip service to following the commandments without actually living into what they truly entail. We are called to reach out to the last, to bring them up, to insure they are fed and clothed and visited and healed and welcomed. We are called to be as Christ to the last. We are called to challenge as Christ to the first. When we live into this understanding of our call we begin to see the impossible made possible. When we live into this understanding of our call we know that we are never alone, never abandoned, that our bitter complaints are heard with grace and love, that our question is answered, that our forgiveness, our eternal life, is assured.
When we live into our call, we know that God is present with us as the psalmist notes:
“Yet you are he who took me out of the womb, and kept me safe upon my mother’s breast. I have been entrusted to you ever since I was born; you were my God when I was still in my mother’s womb. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.”
God is there. God is always there, if we turn to God.