Sermon: The Look of Love
Texts: Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Date: October 21, 2018
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Isn’t it perfect that the story and sayings about riches are paired with the verses in Hebrews warning us that the word of God is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword?” Because is there any gospel passage that lands in a relatively well-off setting like ours that stings like this one? “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God…It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” OUCH! This pointed teaching from Jesus stabs me every time I read it or hear it.
It’s so upsetting! As biblical scholar Lamar Williamson puts it, “Contrary to the dominant voices in our culture, but in keeping with the entire section on discipleship in Mark, this text proclaims the good news that the way to be really rich is to die to wealth. If this message does not take our breath away, if we are not shocked, appalled, grieved or amazed, we have either not yet heard it or heard it so often that we do not really hear it any more.” I’ll say we don’t want to hear it! It’s one of those lessons that make the comfortably affluent (by which I mean housed, fed, watered, clothed, doctored, traveled and entertained) want to cover our ears and yell “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”
You may be wondering right now if you should strap yourselves in for a good old fashioned guilt trip. It’s certainly a homiletical option for this portion of the gospel. But let’s not go there today. One of my preaching periodicals had a few sentences about handling a sword that got me thinking. The author, Rev. Neil Parker, says he once had the opportunity of wielding a broadsword, about as tall as he was and so heavy it was an effort even to lift it. “After swinging it for a few minutes I was surprised to find my hands bleeding. When I examined the hilt, I could see deep, sharp ridges, designed to keep chain mail gloves from slipping when the sword was covered in blood. Not only is the sword double-edged, but even wielding it unaware can cause injury to the one who uses it.” Rev. Parker’s recollection made me think twice about weaponizing this text to make all of us comfortably affluent (housed, fed, watered, clothed, doctored, traveled and entertained) folk feel satisfyingly and stultifyingly guilty. There’s a way to absorb the wisdom of this passage without leaving blood on the floor.
The key, I believe, is to focus on the eyes of Jesus. Just before Jesus says “You lack one thing” and challenges the rich man to go and sell what he has and give it to the poor, and then come and follow him, the gospel tells us that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” The short dramatic reading we heard focused on Jesus’ eyes as well, did you notice? “He looked at me as if he were about to weep.” The writer of that piece thought, perhaps, that Jesus knew in advance that the affluent man was about to disappoint. I don’t know if I imagine tears in Jesus’ eyes, but I do imagine a searching look, and an understanding one, embodying what the Hebrews text says of God: “Before [God] no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” [Hebrews 4:13] Take a moment and imagine for yourself what the eyes of Jesus looked like when he looked at the rich man and loved him.
I imagine a look of great compassion, both before and after the rich man made his choice. Again, gleaning from the Hebrews text, which uses the metaphor of high priest to describe Jesus: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are.” Jesus knows what it means to be called by God, to surrender the life that was in order to walk a new road with little security and prestige. I expect he could sympathize with one who hesitated before taking a leap of faith. And although there is zero evidence that Jesus was a man of means himself, I believe he understood the captivating allure of wealth. He was forever warning against the dangers of having excessive wealth; he knew that money and all that it could purchase was addictive.
As he watches the rich man go away sorrowfully, Jesus looks around at his disciples. Same look of compassion, I imagine. He sympathizes with their weakness as well, knows they are not immune from the attraction of riches. The fact that they were perplexed and astounded when Jesus said what he did about the camel and the eye of the needle implies that they had bought into their culture’s understanding that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. If the rich can’t enter the kingdom of God, then who can be saved? Their incredulity is almost comical. But Jesus sees the rich differently, sees behind the piles of cash to the soul laid naked and bare. He doesn’t equate affluence with abundant life, not for a minute. I believe he understands that acquiring and hanging on to a fortune may distract one from the abundant life of the kingdom of God.
It’s not judgment in his eyes, not exactly; just a clear-eyed perception about what the world offers versus what has come near in the kingdom of God. Robert Capon puts it this way: “The judgment, you see, is precisely what Jesus said it was in John 3:19 [And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil]: that the light of death and resurrection has come into the world but that hardly anyone wants it because we are all busy rubbing the wet sticks of our lives together in the dark. Grace doesn’t sell; you can hardly even give it away, because it works only for losers and no one wants to stand in their line.” That’s just a remarkable image—“we are all busy rubbing the wet sticks of our lives together in the dark.” That’s what Jesus wanted to liberate people from, calling them into new life. But I think Jesus truly sympathized with how hard it was to say yes to his invitation to come and follow him, unencumbered. He knew that folks would need God’s help to relinquish worldly goods, power, and prestige in favor of the grace he was trying to give away.
The next bit of the gospel passage is fascinating as Jesus and the disciples speak together about what is lost and what is gained. Peter sounds a bit defensive as he reminds Jesus that they actually have left everything to follow him. Jesus talks about receiving a hundredfold what they have walked away from: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, fields. Not to mention eternal life. There will be persecutions—truth in advertising—but rich rewards as well. These are rewards of being that are stunningly better than the rewards of having disciples are bidden to give up. These rewards of abundant life being offered are for this life and the age to come, but it does take some gumption to accept the grace on offer. C.S. Lewis wrote, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” That’s an interesting way to see it. The rich man was far too easily pleased by his life of ease made possible by his many possessions. He couldn’t see at the moment of decision that he was living a half-life, a numb life. He couldn’t understand that Jesus was not asking him to become destitute and friendless by selling his goods and giving them to the poor and coming along with the community of disciples. He was “inviting him to join a community of sharing and love, where his security would not be based on individual property holdings, but on openness to the Spirit and on the loving care of new-found brothers and sisters.”
That promise of many brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children, fields, and numerous homes in which a member of the community of disciples might feel at home is quite appealing. We get glimpses of the delights of the community of sharing and love that is on offer when we lay off all the efforts to get stuff, insure it, dust it, store it and so forth once in a while. I’ve been reading this book that was given to me called Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation. One of the essays is about an airplane trip that went awry, as so many do. The author, Julia Alvarez, muses on the layers of society that are so clearly revealed in an airport. She and her husband were flying on Maunday Thursday, and when they went to the dining area she began to put a liturgical frame around what they were experiencing at this greasy food court where they were eating their terrible tuna wraps. The tables were packed with travelers from a cross-section of America, if not the world, a diverse and colorful crowd of diners. Julia recalled what she loved about the Maunday Thursday story: the table where all are welcome, the breaking of the bread, the foot-washing ceremony. She could see a feast before her in the variety of folks thrown together by travel, eating the soggy tuna wraps and other food available at this airport table. She notices that the rich are missing; they are all in the airline club rooms enjoying free wine and internet on the couches.
The flight is delayed, half an hour at a time. Most everyone lines up to give large, annoyed pieces of their minds to the poor, beleaguered, mostly-women working as airline representatives, “the first line of the defense for the CEOs in the airline clubs who have packed too many people and too many flights into America’s airways.” Julia was impressed by the way the representative kept her cool, and watched her quietly try to help the traveler who needed the most help, an exhausted woman traveling with two children and her father with Alzheimer’s. Eventually the flight gets cancelled, setting off a frantic search for available hotel rooms in the area. “We just got the last two rooms at the Courtyard,” a businesswoman in the waiting area announced to her two colleagues. Her male colleague had already rerouted their flights with the company’s 24 hour travel agent; everyone else was calling the airline’s 800 number trying to reschedule. Off the group went, relieved their corporate big daddy had taken care of them. Since the woman with the kids and the dementia father hadn’t gotten a hotel room, Julia grumbles to her husband about the corporate travelers’ lack of generosity. Couldn’t they have given one of the rooms to this family? Julia’s husband asks, “Would you have?”
The essay goes on to muse about the class system in place in the airlines, apparent in the levels of service and convenience available those with means. She recounts another encounter with Estela, a young Mexican woman who needs some translation help to deal with being stranded on her way to visit her boyfriend in Oklahoma. Julia offers her bi-lingual services, and together they win the sympathy of a woman at the HELP counter after a long wait in line, who is transformed into a lioness with a cub as she moves heaven and earth to make arrangements to get the young lady to her destination in the morning.
I’ve been relating some of the details of this story so I could get to the end. In Julia’s words: “Back at our gate, a cheerful man with the delicate bones of a bird and mahogany skin had arrived, pushing a cart of complimentary supplies: blankets and pillows, overnight packs with doll-size toothbrushes, sodas, power bars. We divvied them out, making sure everyone got what they needed. In the bathroom Estela and I joined the lineup of women at the mirrors, washing our faces, brushing our teeth, getting ready for whatever bit of sleep we were going to get. ‘What a pajama party!’ one of the women quipped. We all burst out laughing, even Estela, who I’m pretty sure didn’t get the joke. We all needed the release of a good laugh after the tensions of the night.
“As we walked back to our gate area, we passed small encampments of stranded travelers, people who had not known one another before this night, now banded together, taking care of one another. Estela set up her bedding next to ours; another single woman asked if she could join us. She was afraid of burglars coming by as she slept and yanking her backpack away. ‘I think we’ll be all right,’ I assured her. For a while, I was unable to sleep. But I must have dozed off, because I woke up startled. A woman was pushing a broom around us. ‘I just clean. Sorry. Go sleep.’
“I thought I’d feel aggrieved, lying on that hard floor, rehearsing grievances about what those with savvy, luck, and twenty-four hour corporate travel agents outsourced to the subcontinents got that we had not.
“But we got something better, a significant resource there for the tapping—a kindred care and kindness, apparent in a dozen encounters: the equanimity of our beleaguered representative; her humane response to the anxious mother; the cheerful service of the small, happy man wheeling in our rescue supplies; the determined African American woman at the HELP desk who got Estela on the overbooked flight and into her boyfriend’s arms; the late-night shift turning off their vacuum cleaners, rolling them away in silence, so as not to wake the sleepers from our light, restless three-hour doze; the ways we made sure everyone got a blanket, power bars for breakfast, which actually tasted better when halved and shared…; even our The Waltons moment when we called out to one another ‘Good night’ and ‘Buenes noches.’”
Julia concludes, “Even though Easter was two days away, I felt a resurrection of hope. Please don’t tell the airlines, but I was glad for what had happened.”
I see this as a sort of small, contemporary parable of what I believe Jesus was promising when he spoke of what was gained by aligning oneself with the kingdom of God. The first class passengers were comfortably ensconced in the airport clubs and remaining hotel rooms, or moving on in the private jets or limos or whatever. They didn’t even know what they were missing among their fellow travelers, who, not insulated by wealth, were experiencing generosity, kindness, compassion, neighborliness, patience, humor, and a shared feast of power bars, which somehow reminds me of loaves and fishes. “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age…and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Dearly beloved, let’s look again into the eyes of Jesus. Imagine Jesus is looking at you with love, looking beyond all your defenses to your soul laid bare. We know, deep down, what part of ourselves we have withheld from complete commitment to the life of discipleship. We may have insulated ourselves from our neighbors with wealth, privilege, power, keeping a cool distance. We may have hesitated to let go of things or habits or chronic cynicism. In how many ways have we turned sadly away from an invitation to come and follow Jesus because we were afraid to let go of what we have, what we are accustomed to?
Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus, looking at you with great love, answers: “You lack one thing…” What is that one thing?
Let it go. Then come, follow Jesus into the kin-dom of God.
 Williamson, Lamar Mark Interpretation Commentary, John Knox Press, 1983, p. 188
 Parker, Neil I. Word & Witness Pentecost 23, October 12, 1997 Vol. 97:6 p. 219
 Capon, Robert Farrar Parables of Judgment Eerdmans, 1989, p. 40-41
 Simon, Arthur How Much Is Enough? Baker Books, 2003, p. 66
 Quoted in Simon, p. 66
 Sider, Ron Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger Intervarsity Press, 1984, p. 87
 Alvarez, Julia “Mobility” Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation John Freeman, ed. New York: Penguin, 2017, p. 98-99