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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=223


 

Proper 28 Year B (October 11, 2015)                              St James', Peace River

The incident in the gospel with the rich young man is a memorable one. I don't know what sticks out in your mind most about it – for me, it's the line where it says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” I once read a re-telling of this episode by Malcolm Muggeridge, an English journalist and a friend of Mother Teresa's. He says, “You could see it coming – he always ends up loving everyone!” I think of that every time I read this passage, because it stands out so clearly how Jesus wants to respond to this man, and wants to invite him to take the most important step in his life.

That's a good starting point for today, too, because the same thing is happening here: Jesus is inviting Caitlyn and Heidi to take the most important step in their lives, even before they know what it is and what it means. Sometimes people think that's quite a load to lay on a little baby – but not if you remember that it starts with Jesus looking at them, and loving them, and wanting them to start their lives without ever not knowing how he loves them and wants them to follow him.

You can't get there without giving something up, though, and I guess that's another memorable thing about the gospel story. Not many of Jesus' encounters with people turn out like this one. Most of the time when he calls people to follow him, in the Bible at least, their response is immediate and enthusiastic. Many of the people whom Jesus healed had to be encouraged to go home and not follow him around! But who wouldn't react like that, if you had just been given your sight, or been healed of leprosy, or had seven devils cast out of you, and been given your life back?

Then there were Peter and Andrew – all Jesus had to say to them was “follow me” and they were off like a shot. I guess by comparison with a lifetime of sitting by the boat mending their nets, a little adventure held a lot of appeal. For Zacchaeus and Levi, there were other reasons to leave their old life behind – those were the tax collectors. They dealt in a lot of money and got rich off others' misery, but at some level they knew that being everyone's enemy wasn't the life they wanted. Given the chance to start over, they took it.

Our guy today is one of the few who had to give Jesus' invitation some thought, and the gospel doesn't actually tell us in the end whether he did as Jesus suggested or not. His part of the story ends with him going away shocked and sad, and that's the last we hear. His shock comes in reaction to Jesus' direction to him – “Oh, there's just one more little thing you need to do in order to really turn your life over to God. Just sell up, give it all away, and come with me.” Gulp.

One of the keys to understanding what Jesus is really saying comes earlier in the conversation, when we hear the man explaining his own motivations. He is actually a good person. We don't get the sense he's lying about all that – he has genuinely done his best to follow the commandments, to honour God and love his neighbour; but his best isn't good enough. For him, I mean, I'm not talking about anyone else. No one is looking over his shoulder saying, “I think you missed that one in Leviticus 22 about not offering a lamb with one leg shorter than the others...” It's the man himself who is dissatisfied. Steering away from wrong behaviour is a good thing, to be sure, but he himself feels there has to be something more to God's purpose for him.

That's why he went to Jesus. He was looking for something more than just knowing the right thing to do. He was looking for something to centre his life around. He wanted to be someone whose life counted for more than just what he could get in this world - “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” - what did he need to do to broaden his horizon, to make the purpose of his life something that would be bigger than he could imagine? Even the way he addresses Jesus shows the limits of his search, and Jesus picks up on it. The man calls him “good teacher”, as though a really good teacher would have the answer to his question. But the answer isn't some thing you can know or learn or trade information on. So right away Jesus corrects him – it's not use calling me a good teacher, he says; the kind of good you're looking for is something deeper than any reputation a person can acquire in this world.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see through Jesus' response, “No one is good but God alone.” It's as though he's trying to get the man's thinking to jump the tracks, to stop travelling down the road he's on and instead find a new way. And likewise, when Jesus takes on the man's search, with real love and affection, and says “You know, there's just one thing you need to do...” we understand that too. It's the one thing that would enable that man to make a new start, to re-centre his life around the kingdom of God that Jesus was proclaiming, to make a total commitment to something that was outside of him and to do that knowing he could completely trust the person who was inviting him.

What we don't get to see with hindsight, though, is how the same story keeps happening in our lives. When we start to feel the itch that says, I want to know that my life means something beyond me, we don't often recognize it as the same quest that brought this rich man to Jesus. And when Jesus says to you or to me, “There's just one thing you need to do...” we don't see it as the answer to our question, we usually see it as a whole new set of problems! I'm not just talking about material possessions, though in the place and time where we live I suspect Jesus would have that same message for us. But he's also saying, whatever it is that you're holding on to, spending your time and energy on, defining your life by – let go of it, and trust me instead.

We don't get to know how that's going to work out before it happens. But I guess that's what trust means, isn't it? And we do have to decide who or what we are going to trust as we live our lives. Sometimes we're in the position of Peter or Andrew or Zacchaeus or Levi, and we know that what we have been trusting isn't working out, so it's easy to choose something better. You may even have been in the position Job was in, in our first reading, where you have nothing left of your own to rely on and you are desperate to find anything that will give you an anchor. But what if finding the real faith – and the real life – that you want, means letting go of what you have, when it's comfortable, privileged, and full? That's when we really need to know who and what we're putting our trust in.

That question is going to come up later on in this service. I'm going to ask you some questions about who you trust: not just to Caitlyn and Heidi, through their parents and godparents, but to everyone here. Do you believe in God the Father? In Jesus Christ, the Son of God? In God the Holy Spirit? Don't say yes if you don't mean it! But if you do say yes, you will also be able to join in the reasons why we believe and trust in God: because we know God and God's character through creation; because we know the story of Jesus and how, through his death and resurrection, God showed us how giving our lives away is the only way to real life; because the Holy Spirit is here, active in our lives, drawing us together to be a people in the midst of whom God can be known and experienced. That's why we trust God, even though our own personal journeys are still ahead of us, and we know that trust will be tested and even rocked, but it's still worth hanging on to.

Maybe there's one step even beyond turning belief into trust – and that's turning it into conviction. We know what it looks like when someone lives and acts with conviction. That usually gets our attention, and it often inspires us to reach beyond ourselves too. The man in the gospel story needed to find a conviction that he could act on, and Jesus offered him one – the conviction that what God is up to is worth being a part of, so much so that we want nothing else to get in the way. Jesus offers us the same conviction to re-focus our lives around, too. And if we want Heidi and Caitlyn, and the other children in our midst, to grow up knowing and believing in and trusting God – or for that matter, if we want anyone else to pay attention to what faith might mean and to reach out for what God has to offer them – we need to be people who live by our conviction. We need to show, and demonstrate, that the life God offers us is the best thing we could ever receive, and that God's purpose in putting human life in a completely new perspective, is worth leaving all our old perspectives behind.

That probably sounds too heroic. But it's not about you being a hero. Quite the opposite. It's about taking the focus off what you can or can't do, and putting it on what God is doing instead. It's about clearing away the interference, the competing priorities, that tie us to our own capabilities, when what we really need to know is, what can God do with our lives? That's a question we ask today for Heidi and Caitlyn, but really every one of us is asking it for ourselves too. The answer is still to be lived, but sure to be amazing.