Rev. Rainey Dankel | 10.10.21

What Must I Do?

My late husband was a college math teacher. Sometimes, when he was in the midst of putting a complicated proof on the board, a student would interrupt and ask, “Is this going to be on the test?” He would usually just say, “I suggest you follow this example through to the end.” If this was a recurring question, then he might respond, “If you stop trying to sort everything into two baskets, you might see the big picture and learn something.”

Jesus has more patience. When a man runs up to him with an urgent question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus takes him seriously. After deflecting attention away from himself, he quotes the Torah, six of the ten commandments that form the basis of covenant living for the people of Israel. But the man presses for more. We read that Jesus looks at him intently and gives an answer directed specifically to him, “Go, sell what you have and give the money to the poor and come, follow me.”

But the man turns away sorrowful because, we learn “he has many possessions.” We don’t know what happens next. But Jesus doesn’t run after him and say, “Well, maybe give away half of your wealth, or just one-tenth.” Jesus has perceived that for this man, his wealth is getting in the way of his relationship with God.

Jesus has quoted the commandments that have to do with our treatment of each other: not murdering, not stealing, not committing adultery, not lying, honoring our parents. These are the basis of living together in community, in harmony with each other and with God. But this man, who claims to have checked those boxes, is not satisfied that he is on the right track. Notice what the scripture says about Jesus’ response to the man, “Jesus, looking intently at him, loved him.” Jesus’ response is out of love for this man, out of concern for helping him move beyond a checklist and into a life that is grounded in God’s care for him. It is about setting his priorities straight, finding his path to God by setting aside those attachments that stand in the way of that journey.

As we think about our relationship to our money, as we think about making a financial pledge to support St. Paul’s, it is a time for thinking seriously about our relationship with God and with God’s gift to us in Jesus. Jesus’ response to your question, “What must I do?” is likely different from the one he gives to this man. But it is a question worth phrasing in this way as it gets to the heart of the journey we are on. It is a question designed to open our hearts to hear God’s call to each of us. It is a call of love, not one of judgment. Jesus doesn’t try to guilt us into the kingdom. Jesus offers an invitation to a fuller life, to a life grounded in God’s care for us. A life that brings us through challenges and fears with a sense of God’s abiding presence with us.

It is this reassurance that comes through in the passage we heard from the Letter to the Hebrews. We have been reading this book for the last several weeks. The Letter to the Hebrews, almost certainly not written by Paul or one of his followers, is actually more of a sermon than a letter. We don’t know the author, and its place and date of writing are also unknown. Likely written in the second generation after Jesus’ life, it seems to be addressed to Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, using references to Hebrew Scriptures and a dominant image of Jesus as the great high priest.

In today’s passage, the familiar image of a two-edged sword is applied to God’s word, as living and active. Certainly, Jesus’ words to the rich man can be described as such, for it pierces the man’s soul and reveals to him the intentions of his heart. Perhaps you have had this experience when a person or situation imposes a penetrating question to you and brings you up short. Such a moment can lead to despair, but it can also break us open to a fresh experience of light breaking in.

That is the challenge that Jesus lays before this man. But the compassion is also there, as the writer of Hebrews assures us. Jesus, the great high priest, has become human, facing the temptations and challenges of life we face as humans, walking the journey we walk. And so, Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, calling us sisters and brothers, going before us through suffering into the light of God’s glory. With Jesus as our guide, then we have the confidence to approach God and find mercy and grace for our lives.

Even the prophet Amos, in our first reading, offers some of this merciful picture. While his critique of our cruelty and injustice is harsh, he begins his proclamation with a call to “Seek the Lord and live.” When we put God’s mercy and grace in the forefront of our lives, then we will see how we are failing to love God and neighbor. While there is clearly a measure of judgment here, it is cast within the larger picture of living in harmony with God’s plan for wholeness and wellbeing for all of God’s creatures.

We are invited through Jesus’ gracious invitation into the “kingdom of God,” the reign of God’s love. I like to think of this not so much as a place with boundaries and structures, but a series of images and relationships that reveal God’s gracious love for all of us. In Jesus God has taken on human form that we might more closely see how the divine image in each of us can shine through the darker parts of our impulses. We begin to glimpse the power of love and forgiveness to shape our own hearts and our relationships with other humans and with all of God’s creation. Our lives are transformed not by guilt but by gratitude as we receive and share God’s enduring love for us.

Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu just celebrated his 90th birthday this past week. There were celebrations in his native South Africa and in other parts of the Anglican Communion, as many people gave thanks for his life and ministry. In his remarkable work to dismantle apartheid and help move toward healing and equity for his people, he has never lost his certainty of God’s love and forgiveness. He once said that he only had one sermon that he preached over and over, that God’s love for us is boundless and that God desires the wellbeing of all people.

The archbishop never backed away from the sharp sword of God’s justice, and he wielded it with love and mercy as he worked for truth and reconciliation in South Africa and beyond. The joy that radiates from him is born of the conviction that God never deserts us in suffering and that God’s love made manifest in Jesus offers a path to full life for all.

I am just back from a trip to Venice and surrounding towns, newly struck by the faith of our ancestors made vivid in the blazing colors of frescoes and mosaics. In both Ravenna and Torcello, I visited some of the oldest Christian churches still standing, built in the 5th and 6th centuries. When Rome fell, the center of gravity of the Empire and Christian faith moved east to Constantinople (now Istanbul, in Turkey). These Italian towns became prominent places of worship as bulwarks of the Western part of the Empire. The artisans who created their mosaics used an Eastern style we associate with icons, but with some beginnings of the dimensional and emotional styles more common in the development of Western art.

What particularly struck me in several chapels was the peaceful beauty of the designs of Bible stories. In Ravenna, for example, the dome of the apse of one chapel was covered in blue with twinkling golden stars, and below it were green fields of sheep and trees. In the center of the dome was a tiny figure of Christ. Rather than the stern judge presiding over Heaven, we are invited into a scene reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, when humans dwell peacefully with all of God’s creation.

Even more striking to me was the design over the west door of the original cathedral in Torcello (built hundreds of years before the Basilica of St. Mark’s in Venice.) The scene is of the Last Judgment (a frequent subject for the exit doors over centuries of church buildings). Here there are many rows of saints shown in procession, contrasted with tiny personifications of the seven deadly scenes, but without the torture of the damned that occurs in subsequent depictions. In the center is Jesus, who is leaning forward to lead souls coming out of tombs. Most prominent are Adam and Eve, whom Jesus grasps by the arm as he looks directly at them. The scene of forgiveness and mercy is unmistakable. The ancestors we have identified as the cause of our human misery by their sinfulness are welcomed by Christ into the golden realm of eternal peace.

My friends, that is the invitation to us today. To draw close enough to hear God’s loving invitation to us into fullness of life. To be grasped by Jesus’ steady hand, giving us the strength to face our lives honestly. To walk together through the challenges and stumbling blocks that beset us. To see the face of Jesus in all those around us. To learn to live into the love of God and neighbor that makes our lives truly rich.