Camels Through the Eyes of Needles

Camels

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
“Sermon on the Amount,” October 11, 2015

“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.” (Mark 10:25)

We’ve just heard Jesus say to those around him: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”[1] And then, as if picking at a scab with his fingernail, he said it 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.”[2]

Those are unambiguous “red-letter words” for many of us in the pews today who were raised from childhood with Bibles that printed the words of Jesus in bright red ink. As those words were read aloud, there were probably more than a few people here who became a little nervous, thinking, “Jesus is speaking directly to me.” And there were probably lots of others who breathed a huge sigh of relief and prayed,

Thank you, Jesus, for speaking so clearly to the person sitting next to me. I’m so glad I came to church this morning to hear this. It’s guaranteed to be very entertaining.

Well, the truth is that Jesus is speaking to all of us this morning, so we should all be a little nervous at the moment. We’re not all that different from this man who runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. All of us want to know the answer to the same question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”[3] Maybe we haven’t used those exact words, but we want to know what we have to do to be o.k. with God, to be included, to be accepted, to be loved. At some point, all of us wonder about that, if only silently in our hearts.

Too many of us share with this rich man a belief that we’ve essentially earned our great reward and deserve a pat on the back. Looking at ourselves we see family trees, academic degrees, stock portfolios, and all sorts of achievements over a lifetime that suggest we’re well on our way to the promised land.

Of course, within these walls, we learn that the promised land is a gift — a gift from God. It can’t be reduced to something we’ve created with our own hands or framed and displayed on the wall of our office. And when we get a glimpse of that promised land, we start to value other kinds of investments — in time with family, in relationships with other people, in service to the community beyond these walls, and in support of this community — the community of faith here at Palmer. This is where we come together to share our joys, to bear one another’s burdens, to pray for the needs of the world, and to be fed with God’s grace.

Another word for “faith” is “trust.” And what happens in this encounter between Jesus and the rich man is that Jesus unmasks his lack of faith, his lack of trust. This man believes he’s kept the commandments. But, like all imperfect people, like all of us, this man doesn’t understand himself 100%. Yet he’s completely understood by Jesus. What’s so amazing and so wonderful is the fact that, in spite of being completely understood, warts and all, Jesus looks at this man and loves him.

Jesus loves him. And Jesus says to him, “Come, follow me . . . after you’ve had a yard sale.” Jesus is speaking to this man in particular, knowing that his great possessions are enthroned in his heart in the place of God. He’s honored the commandments that guide his relationships with other people, but he’s broken the first commandment to have no other gods but the Holy One of Israel. When the rubber hits the road, he trusts in what he has instead of who God is. And, of course, what he has is temporal and passing away. Those things won’t endure to eternal life, only God’s love can do that.

This man is recognized not only by Jesus but also by each one of us when we look in the mirror. That’s because each of us wrestles with something in our lives, something in our personalities, something in our past or present that keeps us from trusting God with our whole heart. The good news is that we don’t have to walk away sorrowful this morning as we leave this church. Jesus loves us and invites us to follow him as his disciples.

That’s why we come to Palmer, week in and week out, to remember the outstretched arms of the Crucified One, who embraces us with God’s love and shows us how to love the world around us. This great mystery confronts us in worship, when we gather around the Lord’s Table to hear the story of our salvation and to share a holy meal as a holy people. We pause here, in the midst of our busy lives, to be reminded that life is full of awe and mystery, full of joy and wonder, full of God’s love.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once described a picture of the church that’s only complete when we’re all here with hearts and hands open wide:

“Yes”, says Jesus; “Let go. Empty your hands. The future is not yours to control. You don’t own the world, and you can’t organise it.” But in the very moment when you let go, it is as if somebody else takes your hands, and says “I’ll carry you.” I have no power over my future. But someone else — indeed the whole family of Christ that I belong to — is holding me and helping me along. And that’s my task, as I try to let go — not simply to sink into apathy or despair, but to let go and say to God “Use me for the welfare of my neighbour.”

In this family of Jesus Christ, the cross we carry is one another.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that other people are consistently and invariably a source of pain and suffering to us . . . The French philosopher was wrong when he said “Hell is other people.” For the Christian, heaven is other people. The family of God, the other people God gives us in friendship and fellowship, they are our Heaven. And woe betide us if we forget that responsibility for one another and that willingness to be carried along by one another. The willingness to ask one another for help, to ask one another for prayer . . .

So the saints and martyrs are not there just to say to us “Look how wonderful and heroic individual Christians can be.” They are there to remind us that holy lives are lives in which people generously, trustfully, let go of their fears, their anxieties and their longing for independence, and let themselves be carried by the prayer and love of others, and above all by the love of God.[4]

That’s what happens at Palmer. This is where we wrestle with the question that the rich man and everybody else is asking. This is where, together, we meet Jesus. So it’s important for this community to be here for them to discover. It’s important for us to be here to welcome them with open hearts and open hands. We should want them to enjoy what we enjoy as people forgiven, redeemed, and embraced by the love of God.

One of the things that makes that possible is our generosity. Needless to say, our dollars alone won’t make it happen. But — and this does need to be said — it isn’t going to happen without our dollars. There’s just no way around the fact that following Jesus includes sharing our material resources. It’s part of the invitation. It’s as simple as that.

So I hope the words of Jesus, both to the rich man and to us, will encourage us to take seriously the stewardship of our money and of everything else in our lives. Too often the contrast between our beliefs (what we say) and our actions (what we do) is painfully clear to us and to everyone else.

For example, we quite openly try to outdo one another with the vacations that we take or the galas that we attend or the cars that we drive or the clothes that we wear. But rarely do we try to outdo one another in supporting financially this community of faith that most of us genuinely want to claim stands at the center of our lives.

That same struggle over loving the right things in the right order was evident in the sorrow of the rich man as he walked away from the invitation of Jesus. The subject of money in particular, as someone once put it, “sets us on ground that is delicate and holy at the same time.”[5]

Our decisions about giving to the church and to many other worthy causes are profoundly spiritual matters, and that’s why Jesus talked about money so much. If you don’t believe that statement, go back and read those “red-letter words” in the gospels. So take some time to pray about this in the coming days as you fill out the financial pledge form for next year that was recently mailed to you. What you return to God in gratitude will be transformed into something life-giving not only for you but for many people, and not only here but in many places. That’s really what I wish to say in this sermon, my second annual “Sermon on the Amount,” as I like to call it.

And by the way, in case you’re still a little nervous, only God can thread camels through the eyes of needles. And that’s how rich people and powerful people and prideful people and sinful people and all Gods people enter the kingdom. Make no mistake about it — it’s a real problem, and it’s a real problem for all of us. We need to leave some stuff behind us at the foot of the cross this morning. It’s the letting go part that’s so difficult. And it may feel like wrestling with God in the process. But there’s a blessing in the end — the freedom of life in the kingdom . . . today.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Mark 10:23.

BACK TO POST Mark 10:24-25.

BACK TO POST Mark 10:17.

BACK TO POST Rowan Williams, “Sermon at the Eucharist in honour of St Alphege of Deerhurst,” The Priory Church of St. Mary, Deerhurst, England, July 20, 2012.

BACK TO POST Francis H. Wade, “Stewardship,” Bruton Parish Church, Williamsburg, Virginia, October 1, 2006.

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