Sermon: You lack one thing.

Sermon: You Lack One Thing

A reflection on the Gospel of the meeting of Jesus and the rich young man. Mark 10:17 and following.

Let’s pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my maker and redeemer. Amen.

So as Jesus is setting out on a journey on the open road, with his dusty sandals, there was this rich young man, and he had an opportunity to ask Jesus a question. Did you ever wish you could see Jesus face to face and maybe ask Him one question? Just one question, one burning question. Well, the rich young man in today’s story has that opportunity and he had his question all polished and practiced and ready.

So he runs up to Jesus and kneels down and says to Jesus, “Good teacher, What must I do, in order to inherit eternal life?” Or, put another way, maybe the way we might have asked it,

“What do I have to do to go to heaven when I die?”

Jesus at first did not answer the question. Instead he corrects the young man: “Why call me good? Only God is good.” This is another way of Jesus’ saying “who do you say that I am?”   And so then the young man addresses him as teacher. But he misses Jesus’ subtle point, as to who he is, for Jesus is the Good Teacher and is to be honored and followed.

Now it’s interesting that the young man asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We are told that he had much property, or to translate it another way, many properties. The word used for property in this passage tended to refer, in Jesus’ day, to what we would call “real estate” today. And the rich kept getting richer, because the poor, when they borrowed from the rich and went into debt and could not pay, would have to sell their land as debt payment.

The rich young man had probably inherited his land, or stood to inherit it when his father died. A firstborn son does nothing to inherit his inheritance, it simply comes to him when his father dies. So he knew that the normal way to receive wealth was to be in the lineage of those who would inherit. So when he asks, “What must I do in order to inherit it?” he may be asking, “How can I get into that family whose inheritance is eternal life?”

And so first Jesus referred the young man to the scriptures. What is written? Keep the commandments and you will live.” And he mentioned some of what we call the Ten Commandments – the ones pertaining to how we treat our neighbors.

But the rich young man is able to simply say, “These I have kept from my youth.” We have no reason to doubt him; his conscience is clear.

And yet he senses there is something more. And he wonders, has he done enough? Has he done enough to merit eternal life? Has he done enough to live forever? Or, is there something more?

What must I do to inherit eternal life? What is the secret? Is it a transaction? – I give you this and you give me what I want? In other words, what is the cost of eternal life?

We think this way when we wonder “how much is enough?” I give such and such a percentage to my church and I give so many volunteer hours a week to this or that ministry and I give my spare change to the malaria campaign but I always wonder, How much is enough?

I have bad news for you. What you have done will never be enough. Nothing we can ever do will be enough to inherit the kingdom of God. But this is also the Good News: because it is received as a gift, by faith through God’s grace.

We are like the rich young man.

And Jesus loves him.   Loves him, just as Jesus loves each and every one of us. Loves him because Jesus knows what is in the hearts of people and because he has this longing that had driven him to Jesus to ask his one burning question.

And so Jesus makes an invitation to him – an invitation to join the family, to enter the kingdom of God then and there. Eternal life, abundant life, full life, beginning right then and there.

Now, we know that we are like the rich young man. He was among the wealthiest people in his society. And we are among the wealthiest people on the planet.

Think of it. If you have citizenship in a country that does not have war within its borders, if you have enough food to eat three healthy meals every day, if you know where you can sleep warm and dry tonight, if you have clean water that runs hot and cold into your house at the touch of a faucet, if you have enough money to care for all of your needs and some of what you want in addition, if you have more than two or three changes of clothes, if you have access to medicine when you need it, if you have a car or access to a car, then you are among the most wealthy people on the planet. But most of us have to admit that in addition to this wealth I have just mentioned, we are able to travel, take vacations, and in addition, like the rich young man in the story, we have many possessions.

And most of us have tried to follow the 10 Commandments since we were very small. We may not have kept them perfectly. But we have tried.

So we are like the rich young man, and Jesus loved him. Just as Jesus loves us. And Jesus says to us as he says to him, come, follow me. Follow me and enter God’s kingdom right here and now.

How that looks will be different for each of us. For instance, Jesus ate with another rich man, Zaccheus, but he did not ask him to sell everything. When Zaccheus repented, he gave a third of his fortune to the poor, and Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.” So this passage does not require each of us to sell our homes and give away all we have saved and throw ourselves onto the welfare system! But it does require us to listen to what God is asking each of us to do, and the bottom line is :

God’s kingdom is the place where all divisions based on wealth and status break down and we are all children together with Jesus as our brother and teacher and Savior. God’s kingdom is a place where we love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s kingdom is the place where wealth is given to some, as an opportunity for them to give it way out of love for God and neighbor.

Be my disciple, Jesus was saying. Leave your lesser attachments, leave behind what holds you back, and come, follow Me.

Jesus loved the rich young man and said to him, “You lack one thing….come, follow Me. And enter now into the kingdom of God. Because the kingdom is where Jesus is. Jesus was inviting the rich young man to experience now the kind of life that is everlasting. To live now in the way that leads to a life that has no end.  To live now in a life of abundance which is only found when we approach God with empty hands.

“You lack one thing.” We tend to think we lack many things. And we spend our lives going after these things that we lack, and this becomes a trap for us.

But Jesus said to the rich man, as He says to us, “You lack one thing.” In order to really to respond to this longing in your heart – a longing God has put there, that can be filled only by following Jesus – Jesus was saying to the man, “I am inviting you to be one of my disciples. So go, sell all your property and give it all to the poor, so that you will have treasure in heaven, and then come, follow me. And in following Me you will find the one thing you lack.”

And the man was shocked. He was shocked, as he stood there looking at Jesus and his disciples in their well-worn, dusty sandals. And as he turned and walked away and he was sad, because he owned many properties, and great was the measure of the things that he owned….or, rather, great was the measure of the things that had power over him, so much power that they could keep him from the personal invitation of Jesus.

How hard it is for those of us who are wealthy to enter into the kingdom of God. It is as hard as if a camel tried to go through the eye of a needle. In other words, it is impossible for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God. Nothing we can do can make that possible. Only God can do that, by God’s grace, by opening our eyes to our neighbors who are in need and by opening our hearts to love people more than property. Then we will enter into the life of the kingdom of God, where wealth is put in our hands in trust, as stewards, so that we may open our hands in trust and distribute it to those who need it.

God’s kingdom is not just in heaven after we die. It is now, and we have the opportunity the rich man had, to reorder our priorities. We have the opportunity every day to hear the Word of God and not walk away saddened.   God grant us the wisdom to know that Jesus is in fact The Good Teacher, and therefore to hear Him when He says to us, “you lack one thing,” And God give us the freedom to choose the one thing that matters, even if it means leaving something behind, every day to be Jesus’ disciple by sharing what we do not need for the sake of the love of Jesus, proclaiming the good news that following Jesus is the one thing we need, and daring to experience the freedom of following Jesus in the Way that leads to life.

Amen.

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Many of you will not heard of “Operation Brother’s Keeper”, and I wish I had not. The phrase comes from the story in the Bible in which Cain kills his brother out of envy. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain replies evasively, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The military operation by this name was beginning early Friday in the West Bank, and perhaps far earlier than that. Just a few days prior to Friday, we had visited a small, rural community that had experienced a night raid by several hundred soldiers. The community reported that this was not the first time recently that they had experienced such a raid, complete with sound bombs, home invasions, property destruction and arrests. These are exactly the sorts of tactics that are now being used throughout the West Bank in all major cities in a huge operation, complete with city closures.

The official story is that the operation is reacting to the reported kidnapping of three yeshiva students, the military operation ostensibly exists to find these three students and bring them safely home. The operation as it is being carried out, however, is creating a collective punishment across the West Bank affecting every civilian.

Friday noon, June 13, I was on my way back with a UN officer from a visit to an impoverished community. As we returned to Hebron, we saw that at the entrance to the city, soldiers were searching all cars entering and leaving the city. As we were flagged through, wondering what was going on, I was not especially concerned. The presence of military checkpoints and searches, signs of the ever-present occupation, is unfortunately common in the West Bank. We returned to my quiet neighborhood of Taffuh, on the outskirts of the city of Hebron. I had become fond of Taffuh, a pleasant community with a little grocery below the apartment whose owners were always willing to try to communicate with the ignorant American who spoke so little Arabic. I was fond of my local contact and his wife, who had welcomed me into their midst, and whose children were always so beautiful, funny, and enjoyable to be around.

Afternoon was quiet as I packed for the airport, filled with a mix of emotions. I had been living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for a month, visiting old friends and making new ones, and taking the temperature of the region. People were tremendously welcoming as always, but to a one, they reported how things had changed for the worse since I had last been in the area in 2011, with more land taken, more threats, more losses. In the face of all this, many had become saddened, but there was also a tremendous and vital determination to work for a more abundant life even in the midst of the many restrictions to which the people are subjected on a daily basis.

On that Friday, I was eager to get home to my family, but already missing the people I was saying goodbye to, especially in Bethlehem, Hebron, and the South Hebron area. Leaving the city in a taxi was no particular problem. I quickly forgot about the soldiers at the entrances to the city, blissfully unaware of what was about to occur.

The airport was lightly staffed late in the evening and passage through was polite, full of “Shabbat Shalom” and “Todah”, polite greetings that belied the activities on the ground where I had so recently lived. For while I was boarding the plane, eating my meal, going to sleep as we flew off to the West, hundreds of heavily armed soldiers had begun to converge on the city of Hebron. By the next day, the Taffuh neighborhood, where I had been living, was a combat zone full of soldiers, who were violently breaking into civilian homes, standing armed on rooftops in a show of force, making arrests, and generally, terrorizing the local population. As I landed and began to read postings on social media, I began to see the incredible suffering that was beginning to take place. It was shocking and heartrending.

Christian Peacemaker Teams made a video of exactly the kind of terror I am talking about. It is a video of a home invasion of a family I am familiar with. Please take a look. Instead of knocking on the door, the soldiers blew open the door with explosives, sending shrapnel through the house, seriously injuring a child. 

Mothers of Israel: Be brokenhearted for this child whose welfare has been treated so callously.  Feel for him and his parents who suffer his wounds in their hearts.

Be brokenhearted for your sons and daughters, soldiers whose consciences are seared by having to carry out such horrible orders, who have to break into such homes with stony faces while listening to the screams of children covered with broken glass and shards of metal.

Do they think of the hearing loss of children, caused by the sound bombs? Do they have nightmares about the way they prevented the access of ambulances? How do they make sense of the command to love the neighbor as oneself, when they are given such orders as these?

In the video, these people – men, women, children, infants – are suffering collective punishment by a foreign government’s army.  Perhaps we forget, those of us who are comfortable here, because we do not know what occupation means. This is what occupation means, and to be powerless in the face of this happening over and over and over again.

Am I my brother’s keeper? We might well ask, “Who is my brother?” There are a LOT of victims here. Israel, the yeshiva students who have been kidnapped are your sons and brothers – and mine. No matter that I do not know them; I am praying for their safe return, and I recognize the necessity of working for their freedom. But the whole civilian population of the West Bank are also our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and friends. And they deserve to be treated with the respect and the rights due to any human being. To the extent that any of us deny the humanity of the people who live alongside us, we miss the point of being our brother’s keeper, entirely.

The Qawasmeh Family Story

This is a video shot by Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron, documenting a home invasion that took place a week ago by the army as part of the “Operation Brother’s Keeper.” Army incursions throughout the West Bank have been terrorizing civilians in this way for 7 days now.

Hallas.

This is the remains of the sound bomb the army threw through the opening above the door in the middle of the night.  Image

When it went off, its force cracked the plaster of the interior walls.  There were 5 children sleeping in the house at the time, the youngest around 5 months of age, the oldest perhaps 8 years, along with parents and elders. Can you imagine it, the loudness of the sound, the sudden terror?  And then the soldiers coming in?

The soldiers had blocked the village road for hours beginning in the middle of the evening, but it was around midnight when they invaded, hundreds of them storming the community, and began to enter the houses.  They didn’t tell anyone what they were looking for, but they systematically broke through dressers full of clothes, pulling the doors off rooms, and generally causing mayhem.  They arrested a young man and took him four kilometers away, bound his hands with a zip tie,  held him until 4 AM, and then released him to walk home in the dark, with his hands still tied.  It was a cold night, in a dark place with only the light from the moon and stars.

It’s not the first time.  It’s an ongoing problem for these people; this has happened several times.  And I could tell you where, and I could show you pictures of the door that was bashed off its hinges or the piles of clothing and mattresses thrown on the floor.  Pictures of the tired little children.  But I’ll just leave it at this:

As I left, one gentleman said to me kindly, “This is your village now. You are welcome.  Come anytime.” 

They gave us coffee and then they made us tea, and they told us the story and they showed us the damages.

I am at the same time overwhelmed by hospitality and completely full to the brim with this kind of story.  I am sick of cruelty.  Hallas. Enough.

Schwei

Schwei,….

I’ve become very familiar with the word, “Schwei,” which is an English transliteration of an Arabic word that means “a little” or “a very little”, or perhaps, “slowly.” That is, if I understand correctly. When someone asks me if I speak Arabic, my response is an apologetic, “Schwei, schwei.” For many, it is equivalent to how much English they speak, and for others, they are gracious in making up for what I lack in the way of language. Somehow, we get by.

Today I got a photo of a young pomegranate tree, which has the beginnings of fruits on it. Can’t seem to load the photo, which is too bad because it’s very CUTE.  But alas, also not edible.  I love pomegranates, and one sadness about coming in May is that these fruits will not be ready while I am here.

I’m struck that the fruit we wait for in our lives often comes little by little, slowly. This is frustrating when we want the fruit to be ripe now.  When people are hungry now.  We want all sorts of solutions to big problems to come now, in a big way comparable to the bigness of the issue, perhaps with a big announcement or fireworks or in the wake of the arrival of a famous personality. But these kinds of big events, while they draw our attention, generally do not solve our biggest problems. The Pope may visit the Holy Land, but when he leaves, the issues remain. And the Pope knows this, which is why he has invited the principle politicians to come and pray with him. Generally speaking, solutions to big problems come “schwei,” slowly, like ripening fruit.  And meanwhile, the need continues.

From the Mount of Olives, where I am staying, I have the view to the east of the Dead Sea and, closer in, Bethany. Jericho would be to the north of what I can see from this vantage point. Tradition in these parts says that it was near Jericho that Jesus faced the temptations of Satan, one of which was the temptation to make a bid for celebrity with a big memorable event. “Throw yourself down,” the Devil said, “and God will save you.” In this way, Jesus could, perhaps ,quickly make a name for himself. Fame would surely help him with his programme of salvation; why not?

But Jesus discerned that the way forward was not the meteoric rise to stardom, but instead, it was the insignificant way, the slow way, the way not strewn with accolades but rather, with relationships. With questions. With troubles. With insights and healings too.  Seeing the great need, He must have wanted to make a big difference, but he was led in a way that met people’s needs one at a time, step by step.

Little by little, later in his life, he made his way from Jericho across this desert landscape, traversing the dry wilderness where he had been tempted, on his way to Jerusalem. He had an intuition of what awaited him there. Yet he continued. Schwei, schwei, even in darkness, he continued to walk the path God set before him. 

Schwei. What I want is the fruit.  What I see is its beginning.  What I want is fireworks, a big blast, but what I get is the candle. So, I have been lighting candles in anticipation of the coming of daybreak.  They are little lights, but their steady flames await the coming dawn.

To feel….

There’s a worn foam mattress that serves as a sitting place on a hill in Palestine. It sits on an old metal frame, in the weeds growing underfoot, under the remains of an animal shelter whose tin roof is supported by iron poles, but whose walls lie like great shards of shrapnel on the ground. From the open-air shelter, if you care to look, you can see across from this hill to the next and the next, the beautiful hills of Palestine. Cast your gaze nearer and you will see a gutted white van, a shell of a vehicle, which serves as a home for the man I met today, the man whose home was demolished years ago here, whose animal shelter’s walls were broken open. The man who stays up here to tend his sheep.

Image

Word has it that he once had over 250 sheep, although none are to be seen now. I hear they are somewhere nearby in a cave, that is, the 50 that remain, along with the three cows. These animals represent the whole livelihood for the man and his family.

Beside us we can see the remains of the home itself, a monument to a time of cruelty. Word is that 17 people lived together on this hill, in the good times, before the army came and the bulldozers rolled the house into a monumental heap of rebar and concrete.

Image

The owner is smiling today, talking with friends who have come to visit. His three sons have also come and are standing beside him in the sun. The old cistern was also destroyed, but there is a new one. Water is life. If there is water and friendship, there can be hope.

I still have tiny thorns embedded in my hand from when I stumbled a week ago in a field not unlike this one, where a man’s fruit groves had been plowed under and I felt it and I stumbled on a stone and braced myself in the falling, and there were thorn bushes where my hand landed. I still have thorns embedded in my hand, like splinters. They were the bush’s line of defense and I do not blame the bush. There was no cruelty in it. The thorns are in me – but they do not hurt.

I look at the man who lives in the shell of the van and know that I should feel something. The story of this man is in my heart now like the thorns in my hand. Yet I stand on the hillside and realize that I don’t feel. It’s one more in a long, long, long line of woes that have become the norm, the miserable norm, and I don’t feel it. I think perhaps it is too big to feel all at once. Perhaps I am protected from it. There is a feeling inside the story that I bear witness to, and I think I will know it later and it will tell me its name and I will know what to do with it. There will come a time. For now, I just tell the story, slowly. Hear the story, a story which is not like the story of the thorn bush that buried its thorns in my hand. This story is a story of cruelty. There is a hill where a man lives in the shell of a van, to care for the sheep somewhere near in a cave, who have no other place, and his kids come up to visit him. And this has come to pass because it was done to him, on purpose.  And this thing is being done over and over again, and the world is not feeling it.  And it must.  It must.

I ponder this now from my desk at the place where I hang my hat these days, and then there is a knock on the door. A boy and girl stand there, my neighbors’ children, smiling at me.   It is the last day of school, and they are very happy. “We are going for a walk,” they say, “do you want to come?” It is a kindness, pure and simple,  and I welcome it. “That sounds like fun, how long a walk will it be?” The boy smiles. He has on his soccer shoes, bright blue. “Ten Kilometers!”, he says proudly. “Well then,” I reply, with a smile of my own, “I must get on my athletic shoes.”

And so we go together to enjoy the cool air of sunset.