The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, for You are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Good morning, Cathedral family. After more than 18 months of global pandemic, virtual living, social distancing, mask wearing, and various other protocols necessary because of COVID-19, there is a restlessness for a return to normalcy in this country, if not across the globe. How often do we hear, or do we ask, when we can return to normal? I must admit that even I find myself asking that question as I, too, am restless for a return to an in-person life of work, school, recreation, and worship without protocols of testing, social distancing, mask wearing, and more. Yet, even as I ask this question, I know that this is not the question that I, or we, should be asking. For the fact of the matter is, what was normal before the pandemic is not really something that we should be clamoring to return to. For it was a normal of the inequality that is poverty and homelessness, was a normal of the inequity that is health and educational neglect, a normal of the inhumanity that is racism and anti-blackness, it was a normal that created the conditions for our nation to lead the way in COVID deaths, with poor communities and communities of color bearing the brunt of that. It was a normal that was rife with disparities, and thus ripe for the divisions we now see. And so it is, the question of when we will return to normal is perhaps the wrong question, at least for those of us who want to follow Jesus.
Ours should not be a question of normalcy, but rather a question of eternal life. Ours should be the question of the man in our gospel reading this morning, who over time has come to be known to us as the rich young man, how he asked, can I inherit eternal life? This should be our question in this, our time. For this is not a question about how to enjoy heavenly living after finite earthly life is done. Rather, the man is asking how he can participate in the life of heaven during his earthly life. He wants to know how he can be a part of the kingdom of God that is coming, that about which Jesus preached, that which Jesus made known through its very ministry and being. Simply put, the man wanted to be a part of God’s coming just future. In other words, he was asking how he could be on that side of history in which God is making the whole world new, thus creating a new normal, if you will, where there is equality, equity, and justice for all. Cathedral family, in this time of restlessness that is ours, this restlessness to get beyond the anomalies of COVID, we are called to ask, not when we will return to normal, but rather how we in this, our present, can inherit the eternal life that is God’s future. How can we be on the side of history with our good God who is making the whole world new?
This is the question of the rich man and one which Jesus answers in our gospel reading this morning. But before we get to that answer, there is something that occurs in this story that perhaps prompts the man to ask the question in the first place. The gospel reading opens by telling us that the man ran to Jesus, indicating a certain urgency to get to Jesus. Now, this urgency was about more than the man trying to catch Jesus before he left the vicinity. Rather, it is an urgency that Mark points to throughout his gospel, typically through his use of the word “immediately,” but this time by telling us that the man ran. It is the urgency of the gospel call itself. The call to be a part of the good news that is God’s coming kingdom. The man is running, running out of the urgency of God’s call, to join God, to partner with God in ridding the earth of that which is a barrier to God’s heaven being made known on our earth. Cathedral family, what I have said before, and perhaps can’t say enough and so now we’ll say again, to be people of faith is to trust that God’s heaven is coming to earth. It is to trust that God is making the whole world new, which means nothing less than us running to respond with urgency. To the urgency that is the gospel call to us, to partner with God in bringing that heaven, which has God’s justice, to our unjust earth. And let us make no mistake about it, it is an urgent call. No less urgent for us in our 21st century world than it was for the man running in his first century world. For the way things are, are yet not the way God would have them to be. This our normal is not God’s normal. For ours is a normal that nurtures death not life, for far too many of God’s children as laid bare by the realities of COVID. And so, it is the urgency of the gospel call itself should compel us to ask, not when we will return to normal, but how we can inherit eternal life.
And so it is to this question, we now turn, “How do I inherit eternal life?” the man asked. As it turns out, Jesus’ answer to this question is one that the man was not quite ready for. For Jesus’ first response to the man by calling his attention to some of the commandments from the decalogue. Specifically, Jesus highlights those commandments that point to fostering relationships that are life enhancing; thou shall not murder. Relationships that are trusting; thou shall not commit adultery. Relationships that are honorable; don’t steal, don’t lie, defraud, or dishonor your elders. In response to Jesus’ sighting of these commandments, the young man retorts, and I imagine with a bit of self-righteous pride, “But Jesus, I’ve been doing these things since my youth.” Now, instead of Jesus commending the man, Jesus realizes that the man has missed the point. And thus, he tells the man that he is lacking one thing, which is that he must give away what he owns, his wealth. In response, the man essentially decided that this was far too much to ask of him. And so, Mark tells us he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Now what’s going on here? What is the point that the man was missing in? What was the point Jesus was making, that the clearly rich man could not accept? The point the rich man was missing was one of accountability. For what he seemed to hear, or perhaps was hoping he heard, in Jesus’ recitation of certain commandments, was a requirement to follow certain rules, standards, and traditions, regarding what it means to be acceptable and worthy in the eyes, perhaps of society, the world, or even in the eyes of religious institutions. Hence, the rich man was ticking off in his mind, each commandment Jesus highlighted as commandments that he had met. And so, he retorted to Jesus, “Done that!” Thereby missing Jesus’ point, which is this: inheriting eternal life is not about meeting certain human measures and standards, or dominant cultural norms and criteria of acceptability, so to inherit the privileges and riches of the world. Rather, inheriting eternal life is about being accountable to the gospel call of God’s kingdom, and such accountability is grounded in building just relationships with one another. Hence, Jesus reciting the commandments. But to make this point even clearer to the rich man, who missed it in the first place, Jesus said to the man out of love, not rancor or judgment, he said to the man, “Give up the privileges of your wealth to the poor. After doing so, you can then truly follow me.”
Now, it was, as we see, this giving up that became the major stumbling block for the rich man, as the way it has indeed been a stumbling block for Christians throughout history, if not today. And so, it should come as no surprise that there have been interpretive attempts over time to soften the meaning of Jesus’ demand by spiritualizing, generalizing, or making a metaphor of what Jesus means when he asked the rich man to give up as well. But here’s the thing, the rich man knew what Jesus meant. That’s why you walked away, grieving. Church, we must face the honest truth of the matter. In Jesus’ time, as well as in our own, inequitable riches, what we call a wealth gap today, was and is a sign of a society, a world defined by dehumanizing, dishonorable, and perhaps, unloving relationships. That the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer signaled in Jesus’ time, and signals in our own time, a society, a people that has yet to respond to the urgent gospel call to partner with God in bringing forth a just society, a just world, a just future. And so, Jesus meant what he said when he told the rich man to give up what he owned, to give up as wealth to the poor. But we must also be clear, the Jesus was not talking about giving up wealth or riches, and what theologian Howard Thurman calls a charity barrel way of giving. That is a giving of money or possessions that might feed and clothed a person for a day or so, but that would not change the conditions that created a society, a world where there are people without adequate food or clothing in the first place. No, the giving up that Jesus was demanding of the rich man is about giving up allegiance to, thus radically changing if not dismantling the social, economic, cultural, ideological, and even religious infrastructure that provided for such wealth on the one hand, and such poverty on the other. In essence, giving up those things of this life and living that nurture a world where injustice is normal. And so, essentially Jesus was making clear to the rich man that he could not inherit wealth and eternal life at the same time. Put another way, if you want eternal life, you must give up a life that promises riches and wealth for some, but not for others. “How can I inherit eternal life?” the man asked. “You must do nothing less than give your riches to the poor,” Jesus answered.
Cathedral family, there’s no way around it. What Jesus makes clear to us as the gospel’s urgent call, not simply to acts of charity toward the poor, the homeless, the needy, the marginalized, though charity we must provide. But most significantly, we must respond to the gospel’s urgent call to participate in acts of justice, acts of justice that give up our allegiance to, and thus dismantle, the very mechanisms that have granted some with the life of privileges of wealth or other such privileges, while trapping others in life-negating cycles of poverty. It is only in giving up allegiance to and acting to dismantle unjust structures that we can truly follow Jesus in the way of inheriting eternal life. “How can I inherit eternal life?” the rich man. “Sell what you own, and give money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me,” Jesus answered. But he doesn’t stop there. As if to make sure that his disciples got the point, that again, the rich man clearly got, because remember he walked away, Jesus says to them, “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.” The point is this, it is profoundly hard to be motivated to change an unjust society or world, if you were benefiting from it. And it is easier to become content and complacent with the way things are, and insensitive to the cries of those on the underside of society, than it is to become discontent and restless with the status quo and show compassion and concern for those on society’s bottom, when you are on society’s top.
And so, it is the case that those who experienced the ravages of injustice, those on the margins and bottom of society, are those that know best what justice looks like. Those that are most unlikely, therefore, to confuse privilege with God’s justice. And so it is, that those on the underside of society know best what justice requires. It is, Cathedral family, when those who are on the underside of justice, say that’s justice. It is then that we know we are at least on the way to inheriting eternal life. It is for this reason, that Jesus said it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
But it’s not all bad news. Here’s the good news, while it is extremely hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, it is not impossible. For anything is possible when one partners with God in making normal the justice of the age to come that is eternal life. An age, Jesus tells us, where the first or last and the last or first, not because there is a reversal of fortunes, but because there are no firsts, there are no lasts, for everyone shares equally in the joys of sacred personhood and the pleasures of divine justice. And so, how can we inherit eternal life? By responding to the urgency of the gospel call to us. A call for accountability, a call for giving up, a call to create a new normal of justice and equality for all, a call to be on the side of history where our God is making the whole world new.
And speaking of history, Cathedral tomorrow here, in the District of Columbus, the ancestral lands of the Anacostan indigenous peoples. We celebrate along with at least 14 states and 130 cities, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. A day that first emerged at an international conference on discrimination sponsored by the United Nations in 1977. It is a day for celebrating indigenous peoples and their rich culture, while also reflecting on the legacy of pain, trauma, suffering, stolen land, and broken promises that Columbus’s arrival to this land set in motion. And so, on the one hand, it is a day for reflecting on what has become normal in the countries unjust treatment and neglect of indigenous peoples, making them disproportionately vulnerable to the ravages of COVID. Yet, it is also a day, on the other hand, for reflecting on what is possible, what is possible in partnering with God to make the whole world new. And what is possible? As 23-year-old Wayne G. Chuckler from the Muskogee Creek Nation says, what is possible is a future where his kids won’t have to go through life like he did, impoverished on a reservation. Rather, what is possible, he says, is a world that he wishes for. And this is a world he says, and I quote him, “would be in unity, in work for the greater good, instead of being against one another.”
Cathedral family, we can get to this world of Wayne’s wishes. Not with a restlessness to return to normal, but with a gospel urgency to inherit eternal life. We can get to this world by heeding the gospel call to be on that side of history in partnership with our God who was bringing heaven to earth. “How can I inherit eternal life?” the rich man asked. Let this be our question. Let this be our call.
May it be so. Amen.