Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Trinity 19
October 14, 2012, 4:38 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, Sunday October 14th 2012

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There’s a question we all do well to ask. When we are reading and thinking about the Gospel- or the Bible in general- there are three (at least three) ways in which we can approach it. The first and most basic way is to ask what the story is in itself, in its own context. Mark tells us about a man, a wealthy man as it turns out, who wants to “do the right thing”, to be assured of heaven when he dies. Jesus first tells him to keep the ten commandments, but the man says that he has always tried to do this: he feels he needs more. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him. Our Lord could see that here was a man who genuinely wanted to progress spiritually, who was not content with the minimum. So he challenges him to get rid of all his wealth and follow after Jesus. This was what St Francis did, so many years afterwards. But our man is taken aback. His enthusiasm was real, but this is more than he bargained for. He went sadly away.

Jesus was sad, too. He wanted the man to respond positively to his invitation. But, “How hard it is for those with riches to enter the kingdom of God.” Now it is the disciples’ turn to be taken aback. They had always thought that material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing. Instead, Jesus replies- very gently, calling them “Children”- that an ungainly camel could get through a needle’s eye more easily than a rich man through the gate of God’s kingdom. But he further answers their dismay by reminding them that, to God, all things are possible. Finally, when Peter naively points out that he and his companions have left everything, he assures that every earthly sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel will be rewarded, even here below, although only with tribulation and even persecution.

What is the story saying to our own time and society? That is the second question. Palestine and the Roman Empire two thousand years ago were very different from us in some ways, but human nature remains the same. There are still very wealthy people and very poor people. How does God look on these inequalities? Is material wealth really a sign of his approval? Well, if you have got all that wealth, maybe you think it is. At any rate, even if you do not think in terms of God (and probably today very many people do not), it is still possible and likely that you think that your success is well-deserved, the result of your hard work, intelligence and so on. Only if you win the lottery or something like that do you put it down to sheer luck- and even then you may think that it has something to do with “deserving” good luck. Those who are not so lucky may think it undeserved- but still there is the persistent idea that success ought to go to the deserving.

Britain today- and the Western world generally- seems to value material prosperity more than anything else. Not everybody, of course, but if you read the popular newspapers (especially the letter columns and the editorials) you get a good snapshot of public opinion. Everybody wants more than they have; but those who have more than others are not keen to share. Everyone is conscious of those who have more, not so much of those who have less. As a nation, even the poorest among us are better off than the poor of, say, India or South America or Africa; but those poor are far away and out of sight, so they don’t count. Our current economic woes are the result of overspending and over-borrowing in the past, but spending and borrowing are addictive, and withdrawal is painful, and we would like someone else to bear the pain.

The third question to ask of the Gospel is, how does it apply to me, personally? Not to society in general, but to me. We cannot say, with Peter, “We have left everything and followed you.” Does that mean we are failures? Of course not. Even in his earthly ministry, Jesus did not expect literally everyone to up sticks and follow. He does not expect every Christian to join a religious Order: as John Keble wrote, “We need not bid, for cloistered cell/ our neighbour and our work farewell…/ The trivial round, the common task,/ would furnish all we ought to ask,-/ room to deny ourselves, a road/ to bring us daily near to God.”

It is not a matter of physically abandoning our homes, jobs, families and so on. It is a matter of not setting our hearts on them. When another man asked our Lord, “Which is the greatest commandment,” he was told, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength.” We “leave everything” when we can say truly that we do love God and our Lord above everything else. We must also keep the second commandment, to love our neighbour as ourselves. Perhaps the meaning of today’s story is that it is never enough to love our neighbour (as it seems the wealthy man did), if it is still only to get a reward of praise here and hereafter. We must love God, and recognise that whatever we do, we will never deserve or earn his love. It is not a matter of “inheritance”, or legal entitlement: but we shall receive it all the same! In fact, his love for us comes first; all that we do is only our response to him.

 

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