Sunday 14 October 2012
8.00 Communion High Halden and Evensong Woodchurch
Heavenly Father, help us to remember always that the Word of God is living and active and may these my spoken words reflect something of your written word and so lead us to your Living Word, Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.
In the Summer of 1985 my friends and I finished our ‘O’ Levels. Before you spend the next few minutes working out how old that makes me I have just turned 44 so that saves you the bother.
After several months of intensive work for our exams we needed a holiday and about 7 or 8 of us decided to go away together. Now this was before the days of budget airlines and we were not old enough for Club 18-30 so we decided to go on a walking and camping holiday in Norfolk. I think we choose Norfolk because it was close enough to Essex for our parents to let us go and also because it is reasonably flat – which perhaps betrays a collective lack of ambition on our part but, as it transpired, it was probably a sensible choice.
And so we packed for a week’s walking and camping. I had a large rucksack with a sturdy metal frame. In fact it was so sturdy that it weighed a ton even when it was completely empty. At the bottom of the metal frame there was space to strap a tent. These days you can get pop up tents from Halfords which weigh virtually nothing but this was a proper tent with, you guessed it, a sturdy metal frame that weighed a ton. And then I packed the inside of the rucksack. Being a good boy I packed pants and socks for every day, a couple of pairs of spare trousers, a shirt for every day, waterproofs, lots of food because, as is well known food is very hard to come by in Norfolk, and a gas cooker and spare gas canisters. And then I tried to pick up the rucksack and could hardly get it off the floor. It must have weighed about four stones and, at the time, I weighed about eight stones. Anyway, with a bit of help and some careful manoeuvring I eventually managed to get it onto my back and stagger around a bit. It was hard but in my youthful naiveté and optimism I assumed that it would get easier as I got used to it and as the food got used up.
To cut the story short when we got off the train in Thetford, struggled into our rucksacks and started walking it became clear that we had all done the same thing. All of us were bent virtually double under the huge weights we were trying to carry. We walked at a snail’s pace, some rucksacks were literally bursting at the seams and we got nowhere fast simply because of all the possessions we thought we needed.
The painful memory of trying to make progress towards a goal but being slowed down and burdened by one’s possessions says something to me of the message of today’s gospel reading.
The rich young man in the gospel was a good Jew, observing the Law. He and his contemporaries and that society would have seen his wealth as a blessing from God, a reward for his virtue. He was generous hearted, and wanted to do more than meet the basic requirements of God’s Law. So he rushed to Jesus, knelt before him and asked, ‘Good master. What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
Responding to his generous enthusiasm, Jesus looked at him steadily with love, took him at his word and called his bluff. Surprisingly, he told the rich man that there was one thing he lacked. He must sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and follow him. That was not what the rich young man wanted to hear. He had hoped to attain eternal life, without having to sacrifice his present comfortable life style, with the status and security they provided.
So what was he lacking? I suppose we could say that he wanted to play safe and so was unwilling to leave the ‘comfort zone’ provided by his prosperity.
Almost certainly he would already have given alms to the poor -but only in so far as that caused him no great inconvenience. But Jesus challenged him to go much further – to give the needy the proceeds from the sale of all, not some, of his worldly possessions. Then he must share the insecurity of Christ himself, the wandering preacher, who had nowhere to lay his head. Jesus was calling him to travel light with him and not be held back by unnecessary clutter. Thinking about that rucksack Jesus was saying to the young man, “Don’t be bent over double under this great weight of possessions, take off this weight and stand up straight.” But the rich man was not prepared to take the risk of travelling light.
Wealth can make that very difficult. The acquisition of possessions can so easily dominate our lives. We can come to think that they can provide us with a happiness and security. Most of us I am sure have been through the cycle of wanting to own something, whether a new car or a new house or a new piece of clothing perhaps really believing that when we own that thing we will be truly happy and fulfilled, that we will be fully the person we were made to be. And yet when we get the thing we want whilst there may be a fleeting sense of satisfaction but we know deep down that we have not really changed and it is not long before our thoughts turn to the next acquisition.
Jesus said to his disciples: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
That is a wonderful saying, which conjures up all sorts of Salvador Daliesque images. Some say that the ‘eye of the needle’ is actually a narrow gate or mountain pass which camels could only get through by having all their baggage removed first, and some say that the word ‘camel’ is actually a mistranslation and should actually be a cable or thick rope trying to pass through the eye of a sewing needle. Whichever is right the underlying meaning is clear, it is impossible for us to get close to God if we are weighed down by our possessions or our attachment to our possessions.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t ask everyone to embrace such absolute poverty. That’s a special vocation, to which only a few are called. Most people need to earn a living and have family responsibilities, which they shouldn’t abandon. Nevertheless, God challenges each of us in different ways and at different times to take a long hard look at ourselves in order to see what is holding us back. What excess baggage are we carrying which needs to be taken off so that we can get through the eye of the needle? There’s something liberating in not being weighed down by excess baggage. That’s especially true when following Christ.
Let us Pray:
Heavenly Father, all we have comes from you and we thank you for all the many blessings you have given us here. But help us to assess our needs, help us to shed what it not necessary for our journey to you so that we can travel light and unencumbered with the cares of this world. Help us to be a pilgrim people and a pilgrim church, always ready to hear your call and to journey with light feet and a joyful heart.