There is a long, very long, history in the church of trying to diminish the very challenging scripture we have heard this morning. Specifically this piece:
“Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.””
The eye of a needle.
A camel? Passing through the eye of a needle?
Jesus surely didn’t mean an actual camel, the giant animal, passing through the eye of an actual sewing needle.
No, that can’t be right.
Perhaps, as Cyril of Alexandria, a devoted church father, posited in 219 that “‘camel’ is a Greek misspelling and that kamêlos (κάμηλος, camel) was written in place of kamilos (κάμιλος, meaning “rope” or “cable”). More recently, George Lamsa, in his 1933 translation of the Bible into English from the Syriac, claimed the same.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_a_needle)
Perhaps, as many have argued, the “eye” was a small gate in Jerusalem opened at nighttime after the closing of the main gate. A fully-laden camel could not enter through this gate, and only after removing all of its burdens could it squeeze through the gate, still with some difficulty. This argument first rose to popularity in the 15th century with records that date it appearing as far back as the 9th century, but we know today that no historical fact or precedent supports such a claim that this gate even ever existed, let alone its size and the abilities of camels to walk through it.
But, what if what we heard today is exactly what Jesus meant?
What if “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,” is exactly what Jesus meant to say, because it truly is that hard?
What does that mean for us who live in the richest nation in the world, the richest nation in the history of the world?
What does that mean for us who worship in the Episcopal Church? A church that has historically held onto wealth and privilege. A church where the clergy pension fund totals in the billions of dollars, a church where an individual parish has an endowment over a billion dollars, a church where numerous individual parishes and institutions have endowments in the tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions. Where even a small church like ours has endowment and investment funds totalling a million dollars.
“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
If we lean into our call as followers of Christ, this scripture passage today serves to rattle us. It challenges us to our cores. It challenges our understanding of what it means to exist in this world. It challenges our understanding of what it means to be a church in this world. It challenges us to ask the hard question, what is our wealth for?
And, it is so hard to know the answer to this question.
I personally struggle with this aspect of our call to live like Christ, to follow the teachings, to know how to live into this particular call.
I struggle with knowing that I don’t want to give up my stability, the stability that exists for my family, the things I get to do to build our community because of my stability.
And, I know that I have given up a lot in my life to be at this point, that I myself and my family have made sacrifices to live the life that we feel called to lead. But, has it been enough?
Am I the man who has kept all of the commandments only to go away weeping when Jesus calls me to follow him, and him alone, giving up all of my worldly possessions to support my community and follow him explicitly?
Perhaps you too struggle with this scripture.
It’s intended to make us uncomfortable.
It’s intended to make us ask these questions.
It’s intended to make us search our souls, to look inwardly, with introspection and prayerful discernment, to raise this question within ourselves and find our answer in our relationship with God.
For me, today, this answer looks like serving God as a member of the clergy in the church.
For me, today, this answer looks like using my role as a leader of a church community to speak for those who are voiceless, to serve those in need, to put every effort forward to better the lives of every single neighbor in our community. Sometimes this is very direct work like speaking with elected officials, speaking at public meetings, using my time to serve in a variety of roles outside of the walls of this building. Sometimes this is indirect work like promotion, digital design, and program coordination behind the scenes.
And, for me, today, this answer looks like prioritizing this church of St. Stephen’s through my financial giving as well.
This scripture passage may appear on the surface as a perfect place to launch an annual stewardship campaign, but I don’t think so. It’s too challenging. It’s too demanding. It’s too exacting a scripture, because it draws a very clear line between two options: pursuing and treasuring individual material wealth versus following Christ.
And yet, here we are, launching our annual stewardship campaign today.
It is interesting to think of the influx of funds that would happen if everyone here sold everything and gave it all to the church, but I’m not sure we have room for everyone to move in (I mean, where else would you live?), so I’m not sure it’s entirely feasible.
But what is possible is the opportunity that is before us today as we continue to exist in this season of pandemic but with hope on the horizon that 2022 will bring a new day.
And on that new day, we are called to plant a new church into being, right here at St. Stephen’s.
“Summoned by the God who made us
Rich in our diversity,
Gathered in the name of Jesus,
Richer still in unity:
Let us bring the gifts that differ
And, in splendid, varied ways,
Plant a new church into being,
One of faith and love and praise.
Trust the goodness of creation;
Trust the Spirit strong within.
Dare to dream the vision promised
Sprung from seed of what has been.”
We are called this year to dare to dream the vision promised.
A vision of following Christ that knows no distractions, that calls us to shed our reliance, our codependence upon our material wealth, in order to give all of ourselves over to God, to give all of ourselves over to living into our faith and loving our neighbor through our worship, formation, outreach, fellowship, pastoral care, administration and maintenance.
A vision of St. Stephen’s as a beacon of what is possible when we shed the expectations of the world and live into the way of love, the way of Jesus Christ.
A vision of St. Stephen’s as a leading voice in our wider community for a different understanding of our world and how we can exist within this world, with one another, not against one another, with all of creation, not against that creation.
A vision of St. Stephen’s that springs forth with new life from the seed of what has been, a new church of faith, love, and praise, that honors those who have come before and all they gave to us, while moving into the next century of our communal life located here in the heart of Longview.