By Jennifer Strawbridge
There’s a chance after hearing those readings that you might be a bit worried about this sermon (although I can assure you that you’re probably not as worried as I am). Less than a week after many of us have moved our worldly goods into this place, am I going to preach that we should sell all our possessions? Am I going to say that we’re all going to hell because ultimately what Jesus asks of us is impossible? Am I going to say that wealth is evil?
It is incredibly frustrating that the readings for this first Sunday of a new academic year do little to say welcome and offer few words of encouragement. Rather, all three are eager to identify our shortcomings, something we are already pretty worried about as the first essays and lectures and classes and meetings loom. And yet there is someone in these readings to whom we can relate: the young man about whom we just heard. The one who so clearly is a good person and a high achiever.
Within the gospel, we have this person who Matthew calls young, Luke calls a ruler, and Mark calls rich, who comes to Jesus not asking about his theology or seeking his blessing, but wondering what he must do to gain eternal life. Clearly he doesn’t have issues with lofty goals. Obviously he wants a distinction on his heavenly entrance exams. He has followed all the commandments, which we have to admit is pretty impressive, and while he seems a bit pompous, he is also pious and learned. And as a bonus, Mark tells us that Jesus loves him (which is encouraging) and that he only lacks one thing (which would be nice).
But that one thing is rather big. He must go, sell everything, give the money to the poor, and then follow Jesus. Which, as the story concludes, he cannot do and he walks away. This is the only story in the gospel when someone is called to follow Jesus and it ends in failure, depression, grief, and walking away.
And part of us feels for this guy who really wanted to follow Jesus until Jesus told him to give everything away. But then it gets a bit personal. Then it feels personal as we listen to these words in this incredible place. For wherever we consider ourselves on the economic ladder, most of us know we are a lot further up it than most people in the world, especially as the news continues to tell us daily of the thousands who have nothing but the clothes on their backs and are without even a country.
So this is a hard word and we try our best first to explain it away by saying that Jesus must have been speaking metaphorically. And this does work. It is true that in the wall of the city of Jerusalem there are small entryways called eyes, sort of like the small door within the bigger door that leads into Keble. Thus, we could say that when Jesus says it is more difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than a camel to go through the eye of a needle, he isn’t offering an impossible sewing metaphor in which the camel would have to miraculously shrink, but he means a narrow gate where the camel would have to be unburdened from his baggage before he can enter. The message, then, is that we need to unload the burdens that keep us from relying on God, from helping our neighbor, from being whole. And that burden might be wealth, but it might not be. And this interpretation sounds good and comforting: come to me you who are worried and burdened and find some rest. We like this interpretation, especially at this time of year when the burdens seem to increase daily.
But we have to ask ourselves if it really is this easy. Because if it is, if it’s only about shedding our burdens and going about things a bit more lightly, what about that high-achieving, pious young man? If it was that easy, why did he walk away?
The answer, I think, is relatively clear. He walked away because he was afraid to trust God more than himself, and ultimately he walked away because he was afraid to fail. And aren’t we all? It is really, really difficult to trust God for all that we need and it is really easy — or at least easier — to trust the things that we think we can control like our time, our knowledge, our money, our status, our sleep. And this control gives us security and minimizes the risk that we might fail.
Where in our lives are we afraid of failure? What do we walk away from because the next step feels too difficult?
But the thing is, not a single one of us will go through life without failing. God knows I’ve failed miserably. Many times. In everything from failing to meet curfew and respect my parents, to failing in sports and being wiped off the tennis court more times that I’d care to remember, to failing to say my prayers faithfully and offer compassion when needed most, to horribly failed relationships, to failing to meet expectations, both those of others and my own.
We all fail. Everything that we do in our lives that involves creativity, challenge, and possible change comes with a risk of failure. And the world and the high achiever in our gospel today don’t like this. And just the thought of it stokes the flames of anxiety deep in our gut. Just the thought of it triggers the voice in our head that says we are not good enough, smart enough, wealthy enough and tells us that it would be better, safer, easier to walk away.
But that’s not where the story ends for the young man or for us. Because here’s the other thing. God knows all of this. And God loves us anyway. God knows that the thing the young man is being asked to do, to give up everything and follow him, is impossible. But this high achiever is so worried about failing and taking on what seems impossible that he’d rather walk away from it all than fail and fall into God’s love and possibility. The challenge of this gospel ultimately is not about giving up wealth but about daring to follow God and, in the process, daring to take a risk and possibly fail.
And lest you worry, this isn’t daring you to fail your exams or fail in your work, this is daring you to take the risk of stretching your mind and your heart, the risk of loving another, the risk of a new idea that might fail, the risk of failing to meet all those expectations of us that more often than not hold us captive in fear. To become our truest and fullest selves at some point means failure. This is the great paradox of our life in God: failure is inevitable and the risk that we take in faith is the ultimate risk.
Stepping out in faith, out from our self-centered worlds, is one of the hardest things we can and will ever do. Living a life of faith in a place that is highly pressured and overly demanding and where we can so easily believe that everyone around us has done it on their own strengths and gifts and smarts means that faith is hard. Really hard. Which is why we need a place like this, a community like this, to remind us who we are as beloved children of God and to help us stand back up when we fall.
In a world where what we know matters and what we do with what we have also matters, it’s easy to forget that who we are and whose we are matters even more. Because it is all too easy, like the high achiever in the gospel story, to walk away from our faith and the God who loves us as we encounter struggles and live in fear of failure. But that God will never stop loving us. And that God will never stop calling us to take the risk of faith, of love, of being convinced that we can change our world for the better, of believing we can make a difference, of knowing that we don’t have to conform to all the expectations placed on us. And when faced with failure, to take the risk of not walking away.
Certainly at times, that will feel utterly impossible. Fear will get the best of us. And yet if we only take one thing away from these readings may it be this. When we struggle, when we doubt, when we are overcome by fear, when are tempted to walk away, and even those times we choose to walk, may we never forget that there is a community here to hold us, and may we never forget how much we are cherished by God, whose love is steadfast and perhaps the only thing in this world that is truly unfailing.
The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Strawbridge is associate professor in New Testament at Oxford, fellow in theology at Mansfield College, and associate priest at St Andrew’s, Headington, England.