The gospel is Mark 10:17-31.
My pockets are so overstuffed that you probably don't notice it but I usually carry the bulletin insert with the next Sunday's lectionary readings in my breast pocket. That way I can pull them out, read and re-read them and contemplate what I am going to preach that weekend. Sometimes it's hard to decide which reading to use. Rarely are they all about the same thing. So I wait for something--a word, a phrase, a theme--to jump out at me, hopefully before Thursday which is when I must at least get my sermon started. This week, all the readings were good and none seemed related. I had enough material for 3 or even 4 sermons. That's almost as bad as finding nothing that sparks a fruitful train of thought. And then, reading our gospel, one word leaped from the page as I perused it: the word "grieving."
Just the day before, I awoke and realized I needed a new topic for one of the Bible studies I do at the jail. My study on anger had gone well, partly due to the counseling book I was using and partly do to the fact that the inmates could really relate to the subject. As I reviewed the chapters for what to adapt next, my eyes fell on "Grief and Loss." A lot of inmates come to me for grief counseling when a loved one on the outside dies and they naturally can't attend the funeral. But many are also dealing with the loss of a relationship. Most marriages do not survive one person's incarceration. Often family members simply stop talking to the brother or sister or even offspring who keeps ending up in jail. Imprisoned parents grieve the interruption or legal end of their relationship with their growing children. And the major change of life circumstances that being in the correctional system entails leaves first-timers grieving for the loss of a normal life.
What's weird is that the guy in the gospel who's grieving doesn't seem to have lost anything. In fact, he has it all. We are told he had many possessions. He also says he has kept all the commandments. Jesus senses that this guy is sincere. He looks at him with love, Mark writes, and gives the man a unique command, one not found in the Torah or God's Top Ten: to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor and then follow Jesus. And the guy is shocked. He can't do this and he goes away grieving.
But what is he grieving? What has he lost? He still has his stuff. But he has lost his sense that he has eternal life all sewn up. He has lost the assurance that he is a shoe-in for a seat in the heavenly choir. He has lost his sense of being righteous by what he has done and achieved. He doesn't dispute what Jesus commands him to do. Which I take to mean that he agrees with Jesus' diagnosis of his problem. He can't give up his earthly treasures for treasures in heaven. He can't give up the good stuff of this life even if it means missing out on eternal life. He doesn't have possessions--they have him. This is the one kind of possession that Jesus can't undo with a word. This guy isn't tormented by evil spirits; he's kept comfortably insulated from other people's suffering by material things. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters: "Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…"
As this guy who thought he was virtuous because he obeyed all the commandments (that didn't cost him anything) slinks off, Jesus says, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" We are told the disciples are perplexed at this. Then Jesus broadens his diagnosis of the human condition. "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!" Not just for the rich but for everyone. Then Jesus utters his famous observation: "…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." By the way, the Greek word refers to a sewing needle. The famous needle gate of Jerusalem was built in the Middle Ages and didn't exist in Jesus' day. Jesus is saying it's impossible, as he makes explicit soon. The disciples are greatly astounded by this and ask one another, "Then who can be saved?" The reason for their reaction is that in their day wealth was considered a sign of God's approval. If God gave you riches, you must be one of his favorites. So the idea that a rich man had no hope of being saved left the rest of the people, whom God didn't shower with material wealth, completely shut out. The disciples just lost their preconception that anyone can be good enough to meet God's standards and win salvation.
A word here before I continue. I used to think Jesus said the rich would have a tough time getting to heaven because their wealth offered them so many temptations. It's not that poor people don't sin but some sins they don't have the resources to pull off. The poor didn't wreck the economy through greed. But since Jesus says this in reference to a rich man who kept the commandments, it's not more opportunity to sin that hinders the well-off.
In fact, it looks like it may be that, if you have everything you need, your condition insulates you from realizing your own spiritual poverty. If you don't need to worry about having enough to eat, or making the payment on your home, or fixing the car when it breaks down, or getting medical care for your kids, you don't have to ever contemplate stealing or writing a bad check. If you never hear gunfire in your neighborhood, or get challenged by a gang as you leave one block for the next, or hear through the grapevine that someone is gunning for you or your brother, you don't have to ponder whether setting out to kill someone would make you and your family safer. If you don't have to worry about running away from home so your step-father or your mother's latest boyfriend doesn't beat you or sexually abuse you, you probably will never have to choose between living on the streets or selling drugs or your body to survive. If you are wealthy, you rarely if ever face such dilemmas. You might think being good is easy. You might think that people who aren't good just aren't trying hard enough. You might think you are morally superior when what you really are is untested.
In answer to his disciple's question about who can possibly be saved, Jesus says, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." Paul essentially does the same thing in the early chapters of his letter to the Romans. He establishes that absolutely no one is innocent, nobody is sinless, none are righteous. Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, we all fall short of the glorious state God intended for us. It is impossible for anyone to be good enough to enter God's kingdom.
Think of what they call a clean room in a lab or in a factory where they make delicate electronics. It doesn't matter how good a bath you took at home, it doesn't matter what shampoo or body wash you use, it doesn't matter how often you launder your clothes, it doesn't matter what detergent you buy, you cannot walk into such a place without contaminating it. You must doff your clothes, submit yourself to the lab's cleansing protocol, and put on the clothes they provide if you are going to take one step into that pure environment. Nor can we bring the contamination of our sinful, destructive, disruptive lives into the kingdom of God. We must let Jesus cleanse us. We must let the Holy Spirit eradicate every speck of self-serving evil in us. Whatever makes us unfit, be it an obsession with possessions or a filthy mind or a bad temper or a envious heart or self-destructive behavior or self-righteousness, we must leave them behind, discard them like filthy rags, and put on the Lord Jesus if we wish to enter the gate of the new Jerusalem, the city of God.
It is possible to mourn future losses and that's what keeps a lot of people from following Jesus. They need to bury their dead first, but the old man, their sin, isn't dead yet. They have things to do and people to see and experiences to enjoy before they take up their cross. They are like St. Augustine who was a real womanizer before coming to Jesus. Once he prayed, "Lord, give me chastity…but not yet!" We want to be to be saved from our sins but first we want to savor them a little longer. We don't want to give them up until we absolutely have to, until we are too damaged or too old or too much in danger of losing everything else to continue to sin. Faced with an uncompromising demand by Jesus to give up what we love more than him, most of us act like this rich guy: we walk away. Or, since today we don't have to confront Jesus to enter most churches, we try to smuggle our secret, most cherished sins into the kingdom God. As if God could not see what we do when we think no one is watching. As if he couldn't see what is in our hearts as Jesus did with this covetous guy.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified 5 stages in the grieving process. Not everybody goes through all; not everyone goes through them in the usual order in which she listed them; people often revisit certain stages and spend more time in some stage than others. But her list is still pretty accurate.
The first stage is usually denial or shock. Even if your brain recognizes the loss or imminent loss, your emotions haven't taken it in yet. You may walk around like a zombie, not really taking anything in. Or you may shut down, unable to function at all. Or you may be so in denial that you act as if nothing has changed. You make plans that won't happen or try to keep dreams alive that will in fact die with the person or the situation. Mourning the loss of dreams is often the hardest part of grieving. To follow Jesus you may have to give up dreams of wealth or fame or however you imagined your life. The first stage of following him is to deny yourself. You need to love Jesus more than anything. If you can't demote something, even to second place, you need to leave it or leave him.
Another stage of grief is anger. Children get the concept of "mine" quite early. A two year old I know thinks all phones are his and says so. Kids are like Yertle the Turtle, laying claim to all they see. Tell them something isn't theirs and you get a big tantrum. You get it when you do the same thing to adults, though adults may be more subtle and passive-aggressive about it. Again the first step to following Jesus is denying yourself. But we can have an exaggerated idea of what is ours.
We have a case before the Supreme Court in which a woman is claiming discrimination because she didn't get into the state university she'd been dreaming of since childhood. She wasn't in the top ten percent in her school, which would have guaranteed her a spot. She didn't get the required 1200 on her SATs. She refused to go to all the other schools in her state that accepted her. She did graduate from an out-of-state school. She says it's about race. But seeing as she is now part of the mere 27.2% of Americans who have a college degree, I don't see that any harm has been done to her. I doubt any employer will hire a person with worse grades than she got simply because they went to the college she wanted to. It sounds to me like she just didn't get into her first choice school. To which a lot of graduates can say, "Join the club." And the effect of her winning will not be to get her into that school but to possibly keep others from doing so. This smells like payback for the school rejecting her, an expression of anger for not getting precisely what she wanted.
Our response to loss, even the loss of something we never really had in the first place, is often anger. And you can see that in people who want to be considered Christians but don't want to, say, learn about Christianity before being baptized, or give up things Jesus clearly said were incompatible with following him. People get angry when told, no, you can't commit adultery or, outside marriage, sleep around or cheat people or slander others or worship material success or harbor evil thoughts or refuse to forgive others or be a miser and still consider yourself a good Christian. They think it's like being excluded from a club over made-up rules, whereas it actually like being told you can't be in the health study if you won't follow the diet or do their exercises. Or, to change the metaphor, if you're going to be an apprentice to someone you have to do what he says and work on mastering the craft. We are called to be disciples of Jesus, or in other words, his students. You can't blow off the course requirements and stay in the class.
Another stage of grief is bargaining. That usually comes when you realize that this loss is going to happen whether you like it or not. You may be bargaining with a lover who's going to leave you. "I'll change! I swear, I'll change!" When death is involved, or a radical change in our life, we bargain with God. "I'll go to church for the rest of my life." "I'll never touch another [fill in the blank] as long as I live!" You can keep your dignity when you get angry but not when you're bargaining. Especially when you're bargaining with God. He has more leverage in any negotiation. He sets the terms.
A fourth stage of grieving is depression. When the loss or the big change in our life seems inevitable, we become depressed. The depression can be situational or clinical. Either way the future looks blighted, bleak, hopeless. It's obvious how depression figures into death but how would it come into accepting Jesus? Some people realize full well what following Jesus means. And though their integrity impels them to come to Christ, part of them mourns what they will have to give up. C. S. Lewis' conversion went this way. The grandson of an Irish clergyman, Lewis had lost his childhood faith, spent his adolescence and young adult life as an atheist, and then did a lot of reading and research in philosophy, which he taught at Magdalen College, Oxford, until he realized that what was behind this world was looking less and less abstract and more and more like the God of the Bible. He wrote, "People who are naturally religious find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about 'man's search for God.' To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse's search for the cat." In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes, "You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted for even a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."
The last stage of grief is acceptance. It is surrender to the inevitable but not in a depressed way. It is making peace with one's new life, after the loss. It is coming to terms with the new normal. The big change is now firmly part of one's life story and always will be. Acceptance allows one to move on and explore the other side of a changed life.
In facing Christ, not all of us are asked to leave behind our total wealth and possessions. But we are asked to give up something that impedes us, chiefly, our arrogance and assurance that we are good enough on our own to enter God's kingdom. Our moral insufficiency is hard to acknowledge, our pride is difficult to swallow. We lose our right to do with our life whatever we wish. We lose our place as Number 1 in our life. We must enthrone God instead.
And yet when we give all we are and have to God, he sanctifies it and we get it all back in spades. Just like the little boy who shared his meager meal of fish and bread with Christ. Jesus took it, blessed it, broke it and gave his sacrifice back to him and to 5000 people, a loss transformed into unfathomable abundance.