October 13, 2018: The Rev. Tom Momberg

A LONG, LOVING LOOK
A Sermon on Mark 10:17-31

Is it here?  Is it finally here?  Spring was sprung an eternity ago, and for the longest time, it’s felt like an endless summer.  But one day last week, I opened the front door back home, and I took a deep breath.  Yes, it’s Fall in Memphis.  Fear not – it’s coming to Montgomery!

Fall has long been my favorite season, for several reasons, the most important of which is: there’s nothing quite like a walk through autumn leaves.  Right now there’s very little Fall color down South, but the cooler morning air back home is crisp, and the walks are crunchy.

On a recent walk to Chickasaw Gardens, a lovely park with a lake, I saw things you might expect.   There were ducks, quacking and navigating their way around the lake.  There were dogs on leashes; a dog unleashed; and, lying on the ground, a big, old log that, I swear, looks just like a dog!  I saw lovers holding hands, walking toward me, smiling as only lovers do.

I saw another couple, a father and his toddler son.  They watched a fountain that continuously cascades into the lake.  The two stood, looking for the longest time.  Finally, the father turned to his son, looked at him awhile, picked him up, walked away. I wondered: what was next for them?

That little scenario stopped me for a moment.  In my mind’s eye, I flashed back to the days when my son and I did things like that.  We would stop, look, listen.  Sometimes, I would just look at my son for a long time.  Then, we’d move on to some other adventure, not knowing what was next.

In today’s Gospel text, a man asks Jesus a question and has no clue what is next.  “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This man is known as the “rich young ruler,” since in Matthew, he’s described as young, Luke calls him a ruler, and clearly, he is rich.  Mark’s version of the story shows him to be a humble man, kneeling before Jesus.  After their conversation about the Commandments, which the rich young ruler says he has kept since his youth, Jesus does two things.  Listen again:

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.”  When (the man) heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Last Sunday I spoke at this church’s first Stewardship session.  This year’s Stewardship theme is “Transforming Generosity.”  By the way, if you missed last Sunday’s session, I said that, before I went to seminary, I was asked to chair Stewardship at my church.  That’s when I first got serious about what I give.

Thirty-five years later, I see how my generosity, imperfect as it was, is, and always will be, has constantly been transformed.  At first, I gave a tithe to the church I served as a vestry member.  Later, when I was a new priest, making a minimal salary, I began to hedge my bets about my tithe.  It wasn’t until ten years ago that I began to tithe again, all 10% going to the church where I was rector.   Four years ago, I “retired” and decided my tithe needed to be split – half to any church I serve, half to other organizations I now want to support in a more tangible way.

Each time, when I have decided to make a change in the way I give, I struggle.  I’m never ready for what’s next.  Often, I have avoided making that decision about how to change my giving, before I finally change.  I guess I’m still a work in progress.  God’s not done with me yet.

I think that’s what was happening with the rich young ruler.  God was not done with him yet.  That man had done all he knew to do to inherit eternal life.  But it was his life on this planet Jesus demanded.  As we used to say in Stewardship seasons long ago, Jesus doesn’t want 10% of you.  Jesus wants 100%.  Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.

Today, I’m grateful to the God of my understanding, who is patient with me – and with you.  Our God knows that, as followers of Jesus, we’re on a journey of faith, a journey of generosity, a journey of transformation.  Jesus knew that, when the rich young ruler came to him, he had been doing the best he knew how to do on his journey of faith.  That must be why Jesus looked at the man with the eyes of compassion.   That must be why Jesus loved him, because of all he had already done for God.

Over the years I have come to believe that Jesus meets us right where we are.  And then, Jesus invites us to go to places we would not otherwise go without him.  Jesus met the rich young ruler right where he was.  And then, Jesus invited him to give not just 10%, but all of himself.  That, my friends, is the ultimate destination of a journey with Jesus.  That is the goal of our Christian pilgrimage.  Our generosity – our lives will be transformed.

Tomorrow, your new rector, Candice Frazer, will begin her ministry with you.  In two weeks I’ll preach my final sermon, and we’ll officially finish this season of interim ministry together.  It has been a time of great learning and transformation.  More learning and transformation awaits us in the days ahead.

Sometimes I think I know what’s next on my journey with Jesus, but when I’m honest with myself, I really don’t have a clue.  What I do know is that today, Jesus is looking at me and loving me, just like Jesus is looking at you and loving you.  Jesus is doing that, just where we are.  Like that father did with his son.  I saw that young dad contemplate his little boy with what the Jesuit tradition calls “a long, loving look at the real.”

Make no mistake about it.  Our lifelong, earthly journey with Jesus to the heavenly kingdom of God is hard.  Jesus says so.  How hard is it?  He gives us the image of that camel, trying to pass through the eye of a needle.  It’s the symbolic way in which Jesus so often taught.  The kingdom of God is like a little mustard seed, he once said, and today, he tells us the journey of Christian discipleship is like a big, old camel trying to squeeze through a tiny needle hole.  That’s why Jesus looked at his followers, and said, “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.”

A couple of years ago I heard a young man speak at a conference.  He was an eighteen-year-old African American who was incarcerated.  He spoke of his desire for healing, rehabilitation, transformation.  He was part of a new group in Memphis called “Incarcerated Youth Speaking Out For Change.”  I hope I never forget what he said:  We’ve tried the possible.  It doesn’t work.  It’s time for the impossible.  Everyone jumped to their feet, in roaring applause.  I couldn’t help look at that young man and love him.

My friends, what about the God of your understanding?  Do you see Jesus looking at you and loving you, with his long, loving look at the real you?  Count on it, sisters and brothers.  That’s Jesus, giving a long, loving look at the real you.  It’s a look that says I love you just where you are.  Maybe that’s the light and truth we sang about a few minutes ago.  Maybe Jesus is ready to break forth, from God’s Word in today’s Gospel text, a little more light, a little more truth, a little more love – in you and in me.

All we really have to do today is let the God of our understanding, the God in Christ Jesus, look at us and love us.  But we do need to get ready for what’s next.  Jesus is about to ask us to give more of ourselves than we have ever given.  What will we do?  How might we respond?  What is next for us?

Let us pray.  Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us all that we possess: Grant us grace, that we may honor you with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 827).  AMEN.

The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
Montgomery, Alabama
October 14, 2018

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