Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. The following sermon was preached at Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by the Rev. Kara K. Root on March 6, 2016.
As a kid growing up in church, I heard this story a lot. And probably from some Sunday school book, I have burned into my memory the image of a ridiculous cartoon camel with bulgy eyes trying to stuff its head through the eye of a huge, shiny sewing needle.
I remember one particularly memorable sermon from my high school days where the pastor explained that “the eye of the needle” was the name for one of the city gates of Jerusalem that was so narrow and low that the travelers’ camels had to be stripped of all their packs and baggage, and even sometimes kneel down on their knobby knees, to scooch through the opening — in a vivid illustration of both the humility God demands and the principle that you literally can’t take it with you.
So the rich man was putting too much stock in his stock, and he needed to get humble before God would accept him into heaven. Plausible — and tidy. But then Jesus shifts the script from this human conception of heavenly reward to God’s reality of the kingdom of God, and shocks the disciples by saying that not only is it especially hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of God, but actually, under the terms proposed, nobody would ever be good enough. Only for God is success by that kind of method possible.
I always heard “the kingdom of God” here as meaning the same thing as heaven, after we die. Eternal salvation. Who will be in and who will be out. The everlasting acceptance of God. But this misses the kingdom of God as Jesus always talks about it — life with “God with us.” The disciples make this same mistake. Still not getting it that God’s economy is a place where deserving is not even on the list of qualifications for entrance, like whining children, they rise to the ever-popular and effective “it’s not fair” argument and begin comparing themselves to the dejected rich man, telling Jesus all the things they’ve walked away from in order to follow him. Surely, at least they are deserving of a place in the kingdom of God.
And Jesus, with compassion and gentleness, answers that there is nobody who has left “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30 NRSV).
We work really hard not to need others, and certainly not to need God. The worst thing on earth for some of us would be to appear to need saving! We’re not unlike the rich young ruler, coming to Jesus and saying, “What must I do, oh good one, to be guaranteed security for all eternity? To check off the boxes and know I’ve arrived for good?”
But Jesus, looking at the man, loves him, and then answers just about the worst thing the poor guy could hear, just about the only thing he isn’t willing to do: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (10:21). And the grieving man turns and walks away, because what Jesus is asking him to do feels impossible.
But what Jesus is asking for is the dismantling of illusion.
The illusion that your wealth will save you, or your goodness — no one is good but God alone! — or your retirement fund, or how well you follow all of God’s commands, or your community service hours or fleetingly great health, or the admirable behavior of your offspring, or any of the other thousand things we grasp at to be saved.
Jesus is asking us to let go of all of that. To see it all for what it is — part of the experience of living, a source of joy and gratitude, or grief and sadness, and often all of these things mixed up together — valuable, yes, but also unable to make us real or whole or complete or alive.
But we don’t really mind being half-dead. We stumble along with all our incredible baggage as though we need it, and we’re missing out on the kingdom of God right here, right now, being with Jesus as he is and where he is — “God with us” — alongside neighbor, friend and stranger in the world with us. God is the one who brings salvation. But wow, do we have a hard time receiving. We’d so much rather earn!
I wrote an article last week on Sabbath, around the same time someone was writing an article on Sabbath about us. And it’s all kind of ridiculous. Because it’s not like we’ve cracked the code or figured anything out. As a discipline, we’re not so great at it. Many of us bumble through that day unsure what to do with ourselves or why what we’re not doing matters. Most of us can’t quite make it through a day without at least accomplishing some things to feel good about ourselves.
But it was made apparent to me this week all over again what a powerful thing this actually is. See, God’s whole human project is about connecting us with God and each other, and our whole sinful project is to cut ourselves off from God and each other.
And when we go back to the Ten Commandments and look at the ways God said that life works best, right between how we’re to be connected with God and how we’re to be connected with each other, we find this big, strange Sabbath command, which we’re used to just kind of skipping over but which is a key to the whole thing, because it basically says:
You are going to keep disconnecting from me — the source of your life — and from each other, your sisters and brothers in this life. Instead of wholeness, you will keep choosing brokenness; instead of life, you’ll keep choosing death.
You can’t help it.
You are going to keep thinking this is all about what you can earn or prove or buy or win, so you’ll keep seeing each other as competition and threat and burden and obstruction.
That is the way of fear. The way of sin. The way of slavery and death.
But the reality is, you are free. The reality is, you already belong to me.
The reality is, I have all you need; I am all you need. I am a God of abundance and joy, and hope and rest, and peace and enough.
And so, because you are going to keep on forgetting this, here’s my big suggestion to help you remember. Ready? Every single week, I want you to stop.
For one whole day every seven or so, step off the ride.
Stop measuring and comparing and worrying and working.
Stop judging and competing and producing and buying and trying to win.
Just stop. All of you.
Shut it down.
Come back to real life.
It’s enough. You are enough. I am enough for you.
I am your God. You are my people.
This whole world belongs to me, and I am not letting go.
And I know that if you stop, if you rest like I rest, if you celebrate like I celebrate, if you wake up from your angry and hectic stupor and raise your head and see the world, this beautiful world, and if you look at each other truly, without the screen between you and the to-do list in front of you and the wariness within you, and if, instead of the noise of the pressing world and all its violent, vying agendas pounding in your ears, you listen to the silence, and the pause, and the air, and birds and children and heartbeat and tears and laughter and dreams and sighing, you will remember.
You won’t be able to help but remember.
You’ll breathe again.
You’ll come back into the kingdom of God, back to your home in me.
You’ll see again that I am right here. That life is a gift.
That instead of living chronically fearful and anxious, there is so much to be thankful for, and so much to delight in.
You’ll care for each other and share with each other and be again my people, and I will be your God, because it’s how I’ve made it all to be in the first place, and how it will all be again in the last.
This is the reason for Sabbath.
It is one of God’s strategies for helping us come back into the kingdom of God, where we all belong to God and we all belong to each other, where we are not the ones holding the reins — God is.
When the rich man sells all he has and gives the money to the poor, all that separates him from them will be gone. It will be once again humanity alongside one another in the economy of God. And the barrier that keeps him from receiving love unlimited and grace unconditional, and from sharing it as well, will be dismantled, and he will be free, back into the kingdom of God, where we all belong to God and each other.
And dear disciples, you who have left so much to follow, what if you have to put down your confidence in the leaving itself, the way you measure your worth or progress or how saved you may be by how much you’ve left behind and how well you’re following?
Because truly, if you were to open your eyes to the kingdom of God right here among you, you would receive and enter the whole huge picture — that we already belong to God, and you belong to every mother and every father and sister and brother, and there is, in fact, no such thing as other people’s children.
And it’s ironic that they can’t see it in the moment, these followers of Jesus, who were, every night, guests in someone else’s home, fed at different people’s tables, welcomed in and treated as family in the economy of abundance and gratitude in which Jesus perpetually moved as he lived out the kingdom of God.
Jesus was always connected completely to the Father. Always belonging completely to the world. Always at home in God, always living in the settled state of trust. And they could enter that, too, at any moment; in fact, they were already there — “God with us” was right there with them, yet they were striving to be deserving of this at some point in the distant future.
The last will be first, and the first will be last.
Those who don’t have all these things to prop up around themselves to keep themselves safe and protected and promote themselves forward and buffer themselves from risk or loss are closer to realizing that the race is rigged and false to begin with. That the kingdom of God can only be entered and never earned. That salvation is a reality we receive instead of a reward we deserve.
Jesus is heading toward the cross. And not even death itself can separate him from God or break the real reality that God has set in place. If anything, it simply clarifies what is real and what is the game, which he resolutely refuses to play and persistently exposes as fraud.
We choose illusion and delusion most of the time.
Most of the time, we live like we have the power to stop bad things from happening if we only — what? Work hard enough? Pray hard enough? Have enough life insurance? Do enough good things in the world? Know the right people? Have enough admiring things said about us?
What is it that makes us feel secure?
In other words, what is it that keeps us from entering the kingdom of God right here and now? Because whatever that is for each of us, that is the thing Jesus is inviting us to let go of.
I think of the clarity dying brings, when there is nothing we can hang on to anymore as our security, and the illusion of the game is punctured.
Bruce Kramer, who documented his journey of dying in his book “We Know How This Ends,” wrote on his blog a couple of months before his death last March:
The elegant hand of ALS holds great surprises. I never knew that so much grace and peace and joy could be found in the inexorable experience of dying slowly. Dis ease plunges me into a pool of beautiful sadness. It focuses me so that each day, I awaken with profound gratitude for my true loves, my one and only, our sons and daughters in love, our energetic, remarkably bright and ever-growing granddaughter. I am overwhelmed by the thankfulness I feel for friends, those who volunteer to care for me, those who engage me in their day to day life challenges, those who share gifts of music and poetry and yoga and life possibility.
Yet simultaneously, an undeniable fatigue dogs me, washes over me, nips at my heels, impedes the energy I might muster for the very things that so delight me. The daily life challenges I experience — total dependency on others for the simplest of tasks, the continuing breakdown of basic physical functions such as swallowing and breathing and the like — exhaust me into sweet anticipation of the relief that will come with my death. Death has become a good friend, a harbinger of the final joy awaiting me, assisting me to shed the ALS-revealed imperfections of my physical body. The spiritual conflict is clear — I am utterly in love with this ever deepening experience of living while at the exact same time I happily anticipate the relief death will bring.
Woe to the strong and the mighty, the healthy and established and complete. You have a camel’s chance in a needle’s eye of letting all that go by choice, to step into what’s really real.
But no worries. Soon enough, the day will come when the illusion will be punctured for everyone and real reality will seep in. And everyone who has left and lost things that were precious and important to them in the search of God’s kingdom, will discover that in letting go they are opened up to receiving all they’re losing and more — that the whole earth and everyone in it is your family, and your home is forever in the love of Jesus who is right here and now, alongside and with us.
And one day, when this struggle is over, and the delusions have shattered for good, and all the noise and posturing has withered away to dust, all that will remain is life. Full and free.
Enduring for eternity — as it was meant to be: completely connected in unbroken love forever to God and forever to each other in the kingdom of God.
So watch, because those in this life who have been “last” will be the first to welcome it in, and those we esteem as “first” will be the last to realize what they’ve been missing all along.