Sermon
October 15, 2000
Rev. Virnette Hamilton
First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT  06776
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Scripture Reading

Hebrews 4:12-16

12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (NRSV)

Mark 10:17-31

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.' " 20 He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "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." 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 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!" 24 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! 25 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." 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" 27 Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

28 Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." 29 Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one 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, 30 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. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." (NRSV)

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Sermon

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the General Association meeting of the Ct conference of the UCC… During the evening they had a speaker, Bob Abernathy who was a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union during the cold war. He has a new show on Public Television called Religion and Ethics, which consists of interviews with the most acclaimed theologians in our world today. He showed us a few clips from the program. At the end of each interview he asks about their personal spiritual disciplines. When he asked Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, he got a response that I will attempt to paraphrase. Tutu said "The most important thing that I do each day is to sit quietly and let God’s love radiate in my heart. I feel its warmth and its vitality and I let it be my center for every thing I do and everything I say."

I was surprised that after all that he has faced in his life, that he would name that simple prayer as the key to his relationship with God.

His admission was both freeing and puzzling and it led me to ask "What is the key to a solid relationship with God?"

At about the same time I began to prepare for this Sunday’s sermon.

As I read the passages for today I knew that they were intimately related to what Tutu said. Ah-ha I said – there is a deep and pervasive truth here even though it might – on the surface - be a challenge beyond what we believe we can meet.

Our passage from Mark this morning reminds us that possessions can possess us. Not news to any of us here. It is a passage that we are so familiar with that we can become a bit numb to it. We know that we aren’t supposed to put our faith in worldly possessions, rather put our faith in God. So we try. When asked what our favorite possession is we hedge the question –We would rather say "I don’t really focus on any specific possession, but I do cherish my husband, wife, children, parents…" That makes us feel as though we are a little closer to honoring the mandate of Jesus’ word to us and to the rich man who knelt before him, seeking eternal life.

"Go, sell all that you own and give it to the poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Jesus said: Then come and follow me."

The rich man turns in grief and walks away. He can’t accept Jesus’ offer.

I don’t think that there is one person here who would hear Jesus’ suggestion and take it at face value and say "wow, great, why didn’t I think of that - OK – be right with you."

But unlike the rich man, we don’t simply dismiss Jesus… we try to find some compromise – we want to read this passage differently – we want entrance into the kingdom of God, but in a way that makes sense to us. Surely, we say, – we can find a meaning that will allow us to keep all that we have accumulated in the world and still enter God’s kingdom. Jesus didn’t mean to say "if you are rich you can’t enter the kingdom, right?

Unfortunately for us, Jesus continues, "it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven that it is for a camel to be threaded through the eye of a needle. As a matter of fact, it is impossible."

"Whoops", we say, "this isn’t looking good." The disciples had the same thought. It will be rather lonely in heaven, they think. They lived in a world, like we do, that operated out of an assumption that when you are rich it means that God has blessed your life.

Think about it, isn’t it evident when we say "I just thank God for all of the blessings in my life, my home, my family, my health" ??? Isn’t that our way of saying "I look at these blessings as God’s affirmation of me." "I must be doing something right, because I have all of these blessings."

So the disciples ask "If the rich won’t get in, then who will?" Jesus says to them – "you still don’t get it, do you. This isn’t about you earning your way into heaven – it isn’t about who you are. You can’t do anything to convince God that you are good enough for heaven. That just isn’t the point."

"Wait a minute" says Peter, "we have done a whole lot here to convince God that we are good enough. Why, we left our families and everything we owned."

"You did all of that to be closer to God", Jesus says to Peter, " and here you are, living the life with God that you desired.

Are you living the life with God that you desire? Or Is there a hunger in your soul that never quite seems to be filled up? Is there fear in your heart that never is put at peace? Is there an emptiness in your life where God could be?

Soul hungers and heart fears threaten all of us. Each one of us gathered here gets caught off guard in the course of our days by our need to be accepted, and loved, to know that we are not alone in the world. We get into trouble when we turn to material possessions to take the edge off of that hunger and fear. … We begin to sink when we think that things will fill the emptiness – When we identify who we are with what we are.

This is where the truth of this passage comes to us – Jesus says – If you want to live a life with God, a close and meaningful relationship with God, which is where eternal life begins then you have to remember that things won’t fill the void you experience, they will never take the edge off of the fear and hunger. As a matter of fact, they have the power to trick you into believing that they will. They can seduce you. They can possess you. They take up space in your life and then there isn’t space for me.

"I have something better for you", says Jesus "and that is grace." It is not possible for you to earn your salvation. Salvation is mine to give and here is the good news - Your salvation is already secured. I love you. Look into my eyes and you can see it. - the love has already been given. But you have to be willing to accept it, to receive it, make space for it, focus on it, to let it bring peace into your heart and fill your hungry soul. Don’t turn away in grief – open your heart and fall into my arms…put your treasure in heaven… and follow me.

God knows who we are – and loves us in our human-ness, despite our misguided focus on the things that can’t satisfy. We can’t do something to make that love happen, it has already happened. God accepts us and asks us to accept the gift of grace - as in our passage from Hebrews -"with boldness, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need" God wants love and grace to replace our fears and temptations.

The key to eternal life is a deep and abiding relationship with God –

 

You who have been willing to live with God and open your hearts to God – you are the ones who are living a life that is full and satisfying. You are the ones who will know the kingdom of God.

This is where Bishop Desmond Tutu’s simple prayer of radiant love comes in… this what we can do in our own lives to stem the tide of doubt and fear. It is a way to fill those empty spaces that threaten us unexpectedly. It is a way to allow God to come into our hearts to build a deep and abiding relationship with God.

Try it this week – try it right now… just sit quietly and let the love of God radiate in your heart. Feel your heart warm, feel the intensity of the heat… let love fill all of the empty spaces in your soul, let it push out any other thoughts, let it refocus you - let it fill you with peace… be possessed by grace. Be amazed by it, Let it be your center, guiding your every word and deed…

This is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God.

Amen.

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