Pentecost 20. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley. 10th October 2021

Amos 5: 6-7, 10-15; Hebrews 4: 12-16; Mark 10: 17-31

This morning’s Gospel reading begins and ends with journeying. Jesus was setting out on a journey when the rich young man came running up to ask him a question. And the passage ends with Peter speaking about following Jesus. We begin with an actual journey and end with a metaphorical journey. Inbetween these two points are some rather tricky questions and ideas. What must I do to inherit eternal life? I wonder whether that is really the question that’s being asked – or is the question a shorthand for something that you and I might be more likely to ask? I guess he’s asking: will I go to heaven? That’s a question I used to be asked regularly and what I quickly learned was that it was a kind of shorthand for a different question which was something like: what must I do to live a better life? Where am I going wrong? What must I do to better serve my God? What does it mean for me to take up my cross and follow Jesus?

The first answer Jesus gives to the rich young man – keep the commandments – seems to be a bit too obvious for our questioner – you can imagine him thinking ‘well yes, I know all of that’.
And so he asks, but what more? What more – what else is required of me? Give me a task or some clarity about direction, give me a challenge so that I’ll know when I’ve achieved it. It seems that the young man is thinking that these commandments aren’t too difficult to keep – they form the framework for decent living. It’s relatively easy to obey a commandment not to murder or to steal; a straightforward moral compass defines that line. But this is someone who wants more; who needs more; who wants to prove, perhaps to himself, that he’s serious about living a Godly life. And I think that’s true of most of us too. It’s not a struggle to live within the parameters that our society considers to be the markers of a civilised nation. We know that causing harm to others is wrong; that taking what doesn’t belong to us is wrong. It’s the desire to go a bit deeper in our spiritual journeying, the sense that we want to be a bit more committed to our journey with God that pushes us into asking, with the rich young man, what more?

And Jesus gives the questioner a real challenge. Go, sell all that you have. Let’s think a little about what that might actually mean. Jesus doesn’t say to him: Go, sell all of your material possessions; he doesn’t suggest that it might be time to declutter and get rid of the things he doesn’t use any more, he says sell what you own. This young man would have owned more than nice clothes and horses and chariots; more than property and land; he would also, as a rich and prosperous person, almost certainly have owned slaves. So, go sell all that you own, was a very big ask. He could perhaps imagine selling the clothes he didn’t wear any more; imagine selling horses and uninhabited houses; selling land that he didn’t live on or use. But Jesus is asking for much more than that. Sell all that you have. Sell your possessions and your investments. Sell all that you own – sell your slaves.  What Jesus is suggesting is that he has a complete change in his lifestyle and way of being in the world. Sell all that you have, if what you have is not only lots of things but also people to serve you and to make your life easy, sell all that you have really means turn your entire life around.

Give up your comfortable lifestyle – and more.
Learn to look after yourself, to manage all those day to day tasks with which you have probably never concerned yourself. Start a new life.

There are plenty examples, both in our contemporary world and in Biblical stories of people who set out to start a new life. This is the time of year when young people leave home for the first time to become students; the time of year when this year’s graduates become working people; children start school or start at a new school; newly ordained people begin their life in ministry. For all of those people there is something of a journey involved. That might be a physical journey to a different place but it’s also a psychological journey into a different sense of who they are and how they fit into the world.

The bronze sculptures at the High Altar illustrate a story that resonates with these thoughts. Naomi and Ruth were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. After Naomi’s son and Ruth’s husband died, they would not have been expected to stay in contact.  Cultural norms dictated that Ruth should travel back to her own people and Naomi would do her best to find her way in the world. But Ruth refused to leave the woman who had become her close friend. She committed to journeying with Naomi, both to a place where they could live and towards the God in whom they shared their faith.

If we were to ask, what must Naomi and Ruth do to live a better life, to reserve their place in heaven, the answer might be something about the quality of relationship between them, the care that they showed one for another, the confidence each gave to the other that they would not be left alone. It’s something about engaging with more than what might suit me or make me feel better about myself, and more about what I might do that helps someone else to feel better about themselves.

The more that seems to be at the heart of the question about how to live isn’t about more rule keeping, it’s about more generous giving, giving of self in order to make an impact for someone else.
The rich young man was told to divest himself of his worldly goods – and then to give the money to the poor. So he was being directed to make changes to his life that would have a beneficial and immediate impact on the lives of other people.

What can we do to have that kind of impact – for ourselves and for others? The Naomi and Ruth sculptures remind us that it’s about more than how we use our money, however useful or important that might be. It’s about giving something of ourselves, finding ways to sacrifice what might be more comfortable or more appealing and seeing a bigger picture. It’s about making a difference in other people’s lives and finding that one consequence is that we make a difference for ourselves.

Our journeys with Jesus require us to discern, time and again, what we are called to do; who we are called to be; how we are required to behave. Only then will we have some idea of what it means to live our best lives, lives that are pleasing to the people we try to honour and through them to our God.

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