Last night, our own Carol James delivered an amazing homily at The Vine. You can read her words of wisdom below.
Jesus, looking at the young man, loved him and said, “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.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
What happened next for this young man? Jesus’ inner circle, based on the color commentary that follows, seems to think that’s the end. He won’t be back. The call of worldly goods is inevitably stronger than the call of God. Jesus gently points beyond that grim conclusion, that God can be embraced as a partner in the process, but there’s no real resolution within this story. As far as we can tell, the rich young man never returns.
Shall we try to imagine the life of this person of privilege, before and after this encounter? Maybe he was born into unassailably comfortable circumstances – had never experienced anything else. Maybe he was beloved by his family and invited to all the great parties, because he loved being at the center of attention. Maybe he had a lot of ideas about how he could stay at the center of attention. He was going to travel, and write poems, and win battles, and wear gorgeous clothes, and everyone was going to know when he walked by, that there went somebody.
And in the middle of all these big dreams and youthful hijinks and promises to get serious and settle down to dad’s business, eventually, there’s… an itch, maybe you’d call it? It couldn’t be a voice, could it? Only crazy people hear voices, and he’s just a high-spirited semi-rascal sowing some oats.
And even as he tried to turn down the volume of the voice, he couldn’t help seeing things too – things on the rim of his own safe and ordered world, the experiences of other people. Poor people. Sick people. Despised people. People with no power or voice. God put them there, in their proper places, right? You couldn’t just go messing with the rules of the game, could you? Could you?
And the voice of your teacher, who loved you, said, “Yes, it’s great that you’ve played by the rules, but now it’s time to up-end them, to go deeper into what I love and what you love. What you have doesn’t protect you. It has swaddled all your senses shut, and to be fully alive, you have to get free.”
And you walked away from him grieving.
The young man nicknamed Francesco (his mother was French, so when you call him Francis, you’re participating in some centuries of good-natured ribbing) – he kept walking. His walk was long and full of conflict and illness and bitter fights with his family and false starts and misunderstandings and ridiculously dramatic gestures and idealism and bitter depression and good god so much administration and negotiation.
And he comes down to us through history as the guy holding a birdbath.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the guy with the birdbath. He’s a desperately needed vision of what happens when the people of God choose to live with creation rather than above it or outside it. He opens a doorway to the wisdom and generosity that each of us who shares our lives with an animal blesses every day (…when someone isn’t chewing shoes or destroying the blinds). He gives us words to celebrate our enduring connection with all that lives.
But when I’m inviting us to see Francis as the young man walking away from Jesus grieving, I’m inviting us to look at where our own feet are pointing, and why we’re tempted to stop at Brother Sun and Sister Moon and the good wolf of Gubbio. Do we really want to accompany Francis to where he was really trying to get – standing beside Lady Poverty?
Our reading from Genesis this evening reminds us that the default settings for our good, glorious, wounded world are abundance and generosity. Every weed pushing itself up through a sidewalk crack continues the tale. Life wants to rise, wants to multiply, wants to expand, wants to interact with other life.
And yet a chill, and an anticipatory grief rises up in us when we’re asked to keep that abundance in motion, by passing along the blessings we’ve received so freely. Apparently we – and I absolutely include myself here – don’t trust there is more. Don’t trust that with God all things are possible. Don’t trust ourselves to participate fully in the flow of creation, don’t trust that our gifts are valuable, don’t trust that each of us, fully and completely ourselves as we exist today, are essential participants in God’s work.
How do we build that trust? Like we build any foundational skill – we practice. We do it again and again and again, and many times we do it clumsily, unwillingly, whining and manufacturing objections every step of the way. And eventually, hopefully, we claw our way to competence, and with God’s help, maybe even some portion of grace.
These are hard days to undertake a practice of trust, and a practice of generosity. In our public discourse, it’s such a short hop from humility to humiliation. It’s easy and understandable that many of us feel so beleaguered, so under siege, that the risk of opening up and giving away seems too much. It’s okay if today, that’s just too much.
But remember that very specific detail about what Jesus said to the rich young man who was Francis of Assisi and who is us – Jesus loved him. Loves us. He said to give away all we have not because he was demanding a sacrifice, or wanted to test our love, or thought it would be better for our characters if we’re miserable… He wants us to experience, in our blood and in our bones, the power of generosity, the power of giving, and the uncountable value of what each of us has to give. Wants us to know the joy of wide open arms.
I have been thinking a lot about the gifts we have to give these days… I think about the gift Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave us of her fear and her pain. Whatever happens next, she gave us something priceless, direct from her heart, where our own need to speak the truth of who we are and what we’ve experienced could be roused and emboldened, as so many uglier impulses have been roused and emboldened in these dark days. We need to see what it looks like to take seriously the gifts we have to give – both the lovely and the difficult ones — to defend them, to nurture them, to cry out against their waste and deformation. And then to give them.
God needs each and every person in this room employing their gifts at full power. Not one of us is extraneous, or an afterthought, or a second choice. We may be chockablock with terrible habits and embarrassing shortcomings, but there is no room for false humility as a response to God’s goodness and God’s call to action. Take your gifts seriously, and get them out into the world. Don’t be the place where the story ends. Don’t justify the cynicism of those jackasses who say you won’t be back. Don’t be the place where blessings grind to a halt. Keep them moving. Keep yourself moving. It’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to mess up. But we’re never alone, we’re never unloved, and we’re never without something vital to give.