The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday October 14, 2018.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

This sermon is influenced by a sermon preached by Reagan Humber, the pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver.

Today’s gospel passage is often referred to as the story of the rich young ruler. It’s not a title you can easily infer from our reading from Mark, but the story also appears in the gospel of Matthew, where the man is described as young, and in Luke, where he is described as a ruler.

So this man, runs up to Jesus, falls on his knees and says, “Good Teacher, what much I do to inherit eternal life?” (17) He’s basically asking Jesus to lay out a road map for eternal life.

And Jesus’ response has a bit of an edge to it. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (18)

If I was this rich young ruler I’d be instantly confused. I might even mumble an answer like, “Um, because you ARE good or because that’s just a thing we say in this culture as a sign of respect?”

But Jesus doesn’t give him a chance to answer, rather he continues with a short list of commandments. He doesn’t even list them all. And the rich young ruler quickly dismisses the list saying, “Yes, yes, I’m already doing all of that. What else do I need to do?”

Jesus is trying to give this man good news. He is trying to say that this man already knows the way. He doesn’t have to do anything to inherit eternal life, it’s already his.

Jesus is saying, “don’t worry, you’re in good shape,” but the man doesn’t believe him. Surely it’s impossible, he can’t possibly be doing enough already. Surely he needs to do more.

And Jesus, we are told, looks at the man, and loves him. I love these details, Jesus knows and loves this man. He is looking at him, paying attention to him and it is out of that love and that knowing that Jesus speaks the words the man most needs to hear. (21)

Jesus says, “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.” (21)

Jesus looks at a man who seemingly has it all – he is rich, young, in a position of power, and says, “You lack one thing…” He doesn’t say, “You have too much, get rid of your stuff,” rather he says, “there is something you are missing.” This isn’t about subtraction, it’s about addition.

What does the man lack?

I think, what he lacks is the imagination to believe that another way is possible. The imagination that would lead him to suspect that the way he has been taught to think since birth, might not be the only way to think.

He wants solutions – actions and reasoning that he can understand and if the truth doesn’t fit into that paradigm, he can’t recognize it as truth.

Eternal life is a free gift? There is nothing more I need to do? I’m fine just as I am? It’s unimaginable. It’s impossible. There must be a catch and the rich young ruler wants Jesus to show it to him.

Sometimes we become so locked into our old ways of thinking, that we can’t even imagine a new way is possible. There can be a solution staring us in the face, Jesus can be standing right in front of us telling us that a different, better way is possible, and we won’t be able to see him because we are blinded by our old behaviors and past experiences.

“But throughout the gospel, Jesus lays out that eternal life isn’t built on our effort, on our work, or on our deservedness. The way to eternal life is built upon God’s grace as a gift, which has nothing to do with our own goodness. But the man in the gospel can’t see this because he is blinded by a system of transactional relationships based upon effort and reward.” (RH)

My first spiritual director loved to tell stories and he had some great pithy lines that I will never forget. He once told me the story of a man who was very much like the rich young ruler in our story, and when he described the man he said, “He was one of those guys who spent his whole life earnestly trying to put Jesus out of a job.”

And yes, in case it’s not obvious, he told me this story for a reason. He told me this story because he could see that I was one of those gals who was spending her life earnestly trying to put Jesus out of a job.

And I still am sometimes, but I’m working hard to learn to ask the question, “What is mine to do?” I have a role to play to be sure, but so does Jesus. I need to do my work, and trust that Jesus will do his.

But the rich young ruler can’t imagine a life like that, at least not in the portion of his life story recorded in Mark. He is so stuck in his old way of thinking that Jesus words are shocking to him and Mark tells us that he goes away grieving. (22)

And grief is a deep, and active, and painful emotion. But grief can also be healing. It’s possible, that this man will, after that grief subsides, be willing to have his imagination expanded by Jesus’ words and do exactly what Jesus counsels him to do.

But we don’t get to hear the rest of his story and, by walking away when he does, this young man misses out on the next few things that Jesus says.

After the young man leaves, Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom. (25)

People have been trying to figure out what Jesus meant by this since the moment he said it. A fairly well known interpretation goes something like this: In Jesus’ time there was a gate in Jerusalem called the “Eye of the Needle.” And for whatever reason, the people who built this gate built it in such a way that it was too small for a camel to walk through. And, for whatever reason, they didn’t also build a second camel accessible gate.

In order for a camel to go through this gate, you would have to remove all the cargo the camel was carrying and then the camel would have to sink down to the ground and crawl through the gate.

But here’s the thing. “There is no evidence anywhere in the Mideast” that such a gate existed.” (Collegeville Commentary, 120) None. There is no evidence to suggest that a gate called the Eye of the Needle ever existed.

Well, you might say, we haven’t found any evidence that this gate existed, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist in Jesus’ time. Fair enough, except, that we still have camels, and camels can’t crawl.

Jesus is not making a reference to a literal place, he is using a form of hyperbole that is a natural part of Semitic speech.

But why then, did the understanding that there was a literal gate with literal crawling camels become so popular?

I suspect it’s because it is a more comfortable interpretation than to believe that it is utterly impossible for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.

On one hand, people, especially wealthy people, don’t want to believe that it’s impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven. This crawling camel interpretation provides them with a convenient workaround. It allows them to believe that what Jesus is saying is that it may be hard for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, but it’s not impossible.

But it’s not only rich people, a category as North Americans we basically all fall into by the way, it’s not only rich people like us who have a hard time with this story.

The church has always had a really hard time hearing that eternal life is a gift. This literal gate/literal camel interpretation is a way of trying to erase God’s grace from the story. And while this story is our focus today, it’s certainly not the only time we have been tempted to erase grace from God’s story.

We reject grace, because we prefer a story that says if we work hard enough we can earn salvation. If we, like that mythical camel, remove all of our baggage, humble ourselves, drop down to our knees and crawl, then we can enter God’s kingdom. If we do this slow, hard, painstaking work, then we will be allowed to enter heaven on our own steam. That’s a story that most of us can wrap our minds around. That’s a story we can be comfortable with.

That’s a story that completely eliminates God’s grace.

We’re uncomfortable with any idea that suggests that we are not in control of our own destinies. We are uncomfortable with any idea that challenges the negative transactional tape in our heads that says we have to do something in order to get something.

We are uncomfortable with the Jesus who says not, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened and I’ll run you through an intensive salvation boot camp,” but rather says “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)

The rich young ruler hears Jesus’ command to sell all he has and come follow Christ and he walks away grieving. And, as I said earlier, by leaving when he does, the young man missed the good new that Jesus shares with the disciples. He misses hearing Jesus say that, “It is impossible for a person, by the sheer force of their own will, to enter God’s kingdom, but nothing is ever impossible for God.”

Eternal life is God’s job, not ours. There are so many things that are impossible for us to do on our own, but nothing is ever impossible for God.

Stuck in his old ways of thinking, the rich young man leaves before hearing this good news. Where do you as an individual get stuck? Where do we as a community get stuck? Where do we all need to stretch our imaginations?

This past week, Jamie, Danielle and I went to Collegeville for the first session of the Communities of Calling initiative that our church will be a part of for the next 5 years. Jamie and I also returned home and dove straight into 3 days of diocesan synod so we haven’t really have time to unpack all that we heard and experienced in Collegeville just yet, but you will continue to hear more about the project as it unfolds.

What I can tell you today is that a major component of this project is an invitation for us, for all of us, to expand our imaginations and think creatively about vocation, faith, and what it means to be a church.

I’m excited for all of us to have the opportunity to discover the places where we may have fallen into crawling camel thinking and to begin to live into grace-filled God like thinking instead. I’m excited for what will happen when we allow ourselves to be stretched and challenged and inspired by the other participants in this project and by each other.

And, although I can’t imagine what all will happen as a result of this project, I do know about some of the beautiful things we have been able to do as a community when we were bold enough to stretch our imaginations. And those stories give me to confidence to risk stretching my imagination again.

For example, as a small church with a tight budget, it would be easy for us to believe that we cannot afford to be generous. Prudent even. It’s unlikely that anyone would criticize us for saying that we need every single penny that arrives in those offering baskets at the back of the church each Sunday just to keep our basic ministries running. Who would disagree with that?

Not me, that’s for sure.

And yet, in the past 11 years that I have been a part of this community I have watched people with bigger imaginations than mine utterly reject the sort of scarcity mentality that I so often cling to and say, “God is a God of abundance and God calls us to live lives of extravagant generosity.” These people in our community called us to imagine a more generous way of being church. They said, do we really believe that we can do more with 100% of our budget than God can do with 90%? And it captured our imaginations and over the years we gradually grew our budget for missions until it was 10% of our overall budget.

And that’s why, in November, our Mission Fund committee will have the extreme privilege to review your submissions and disburse those funds to people who are doing good work outside the walls of this church.

I stand here before you today saying that this is an amazing and beautiful thing that we do together that several years ago I was utterly convinced was impossible. If it had been up to me, I, like the rich young ruler, would have walked away from this idea with sadness in my heart, and a conviction that such a thing was simply impossible.

But nothing is impossible with God.

At the end of our service, we regularly say a prayer that includes the beautiful lines, “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine….”

What could happen if we really leaned into that truth? What could happen if we all begin to both ask and imagine?

I can’t imagine all the possibilities, but I do know that nothing, nothing, is impossible with God.

Thanks be to God.