You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
Imagine that you are surrounded by a spectacularly beautiful mountain landscape: a stream is gurgling not too far away; the sun is shining; perfect, fluffy, white clouds are floating along in the clear, blue sky; the air is crisp and clean. All is wonderful in this sylvan scene… except that you are carrying on your back a backpack loaded with your tent, your sleeping bag, your clothes, your food and your water. And the bag is heavy. And you are hiking uphill. And you have been doing this for a week, or ten days, or maybe two weeks. This was the scene one day this past July when I was hiking in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. I am 45 years old. Let’s not guess just exactly how many extra pounds I am already carrying around my middle. Let’s just say that most days the loudest sound I could hear as I hiked was my own labored breathing: in and out, in and out, as I tried to suck the oxygen out of the thin mountain air.
On my worst day of hiking – my unhappiest day, when every muscle ached, and I wanted only to sit and rest, but I was looking up to a mountain pass that I could not imagine ever reaching – a thought ran through my head as I grumbled to myself, and wondered if I could really make it. I was aware of how long the hike was (211 miles), of how heavy my pack was (something like 30 pounds or more), and how overweight and out of shape I am (I thought we agreed not to be precise about that), and I listened to my breathing (in and out, in and out)… and the thought that ran through my head was this: “You did this to yourself.” No one else had let me get so out of shape. No one else had forced me to take this hike. No one else had packed my bag. I was responsible for every ounce of unhappiness I was experiencing. I did it to myself, and there was no one to be angry or upset with other than me.
There had been another day with a moment of unhappiness, when my companions and I were hiking up a steep ridge where several trees had fallen directly across the trail, making it very difficult to ascend. In one place there was a very large tree that had fallen across the trail at a steep angle. I tried to climb over the tree, grabbing its branches to try to hoist my self and my backpack across its big rounded trunk. But the tree was too big and the tangle of branches too thick to get up and over. It looked as though hikers before me had instead chosen to duck beneath the tree, going just downhill of the path and squeezing themselves, and their backpacks between the steep mountainside and the rough tree. There was a gap there that looked as though a small child with a bookbag might make it through. But I could not imagine how I would get underneath with my backpack. I was tired, and frustrated from not having made it over the tree. I was annoyed that my smaller, lighter, and younger hiking companions had already cleared this obstacle and were now well ahead of me. I was nervous about losing my footing. And I was sure I would not fit underneath the tree.
So I got down on my belly, my face nearly in the dirt. And I reached my hands out in front of me and started to pull myself forward on the sloping mountainside, underneath the fallen tree trunk. I felt the top of my backpack hit the trunk above me, and my momentum stopped. I scrunched myself down into the dirt to try to get lower, and I pulled myself again, and I felt my backpack reluctantly scrape along the bark of the tree as I managed to get myself most of the way under. Another pull, and at last I made it through to the other side of the tree. My knees were scraped, I was covered in dirt, I was breathing even harder than usual, but I was past the obstacle. I adjusted my pack on my back and I looked up, for the trail kept going up, and I continued on my way. I did it to myself.
I was not thinking at the time about the Gospel of Mark. But come to think of it, very few people that I know believe in the Gospel by the time they get to the portion of the 10th chapter we read this morning. Very few Christians can see the value in Jesus’ teaching here, and most of us are eager to ignore it, to explain it away, or stash it in whatever drawer we stashed Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies: the “useless drawer” where we put other useless things.
Today’s gospel reading might as well go into the useless drawer: “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 a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Haven’t you and I long ago consigned this passage to the useless drawer? Only holy people – monks and nuns – believe this stuff, and they are either crazy or stupid, or there is something else wrong with them (we must assume). For no one in his right mind does anything other than what the man in the story does: turn his or her back on Jesus and walk away from him when told to sell everything and give the money to the poor. Except in our case we do not turn away from Jesus sorrowfully, because, really, what is he, crazy?
Remember me trying to get underneath that tree? Do you know what never occurred to me? Do you know what thought never crossed my mind? This one: take the pack off your back. You are carrying too much and it makes it hard to go forward, so take the pack off your back.
Now, normally I would think that that’s a metaphor for repentance or forgiveness or grief, or some other spiritual virtue, some inner conflict or turmoil that it’s hard to let go of. And I would say to gently, why don’t you take the pack off your back? Let Jesus carry it? But I had my stuff in my backpack: the things I needed. My life. You don’t just take that off your back.
I played a little thought experiment the other day when reflecting about my hiking trip and this gospel reading. I asked myself to imagine that I had been hiking with a backpack full of money, and that I could keep as much money as I could carry up those mountains. I’d have killed myself to drag it all up there! I’d have starved and dehydrated myself to make room for more cash in my bag. And you could have pushed trees down in front of me and I’d have crawled under them.
And I think I actually stand pretty loosely to money. I give a fair amount of it away. I am not very motivated by it. I have chosen, more or less, a life with limited earning potential. But if you’d told me I could keep a bag stuffed with money as long as I could hike uphill with it on my back for three weeks …I’d give that serious consideration.
I’d want to know what the denominations of the bills were, of course.
I’d want twenties… at least.
When the man asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, do you remember what Jesus did? Saint Mark tells us that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” He loved him. This means that this un-named, unknown, never-to-be-seen-again man is in the same category as Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead! He loved him. This is not insignificant.
Jesus loves you, too. He is going to raise you from the dead. OK, that’s later. But now, he loves you and me, and does he also want us to hear what the un-named, unknown, never-to-be-seen-again man heard? “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”?
But we don’t really want to take our backpacks off, do we?
No, we do not. We would rather scrape our way along the dirt to try to squeeze through the eye of the needle, than risk leaving our money behind. I know I would. And many of us would just decide that it was a better idea to turn back whence we came. Maybe the only reason I kept going is because there were two guys ahead of me, and didn’t want to lose them. Maybe otherwise I’d have turned around, marched to the bottom of the mountain and ordered myself a beer.
Money has a grip on us – on you and on me – and it is not letting go. And neither are we, just yet.
And here’s the thing: it seldom occurs to any of us to take the backpack off. It is almost unthinkable that we could do without, manage with less, or give it all away. Let Warren Buffet do that, or Gerry Lenfest, we think. They have plenty to spare. But I’ll keep my backpack on, thank you very much.
Now some of you, maybe you need to be careful this way. There are people who worship in this church week by week, I know, who really don’t have much at all in their packs, and they need to hold onto it. But not so many of us fall into that category. Most of us are rich by nearly any measure. Which means that Jesus is talking to us. Jesus loves us. And he hardly ever had a good thing to say about the rich except this: from those to whom much is given, much will be expected – which Google may tell you is an anonymous quotation, but which is actually found in the 48th verse of the 12th chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke.
We forget where it came from because it has been filed in the useless drawer. Just like the Gospel reading today: useless.
Here’s another thing we don’t believe: Money can’t buy happiness. Hah! Most of us strongly suspect that money can indeed buy happiness. And the more of it you have the happier you will be, we strongly suspect. And it certainly seems that money buys the things that go with happiness. But you know what money doesn’t do? Money doesn’t make it easier to climb mountains; which is to say: to pass through the eye of the needle.
I suspect that most of us are going to leave this Gospel passage in the useless drawer for a good while longer. I suspect that we have already turned away from it, for we have many possessions, most of us. So we have taken the passage out for its requisite fifteen minutes and it can go back in the drawer for another year, or whatever. But if, like me, you suspect, that Jesus actually said this for a reason, that he meant it, and that it could, in fact, be mysterious and wonderful kind of Good News that we have just not figured out yet, I have a suggestion:
Let’s practice giving our money away.
You can try when the plate is passed around the church later on in Mass. Will you let it go by? Or will you put something in it? A dollar, a five, ten, twenty? Even if you already pay your pledge by check, or credit card? Practice giving it away.
You can practice by giving a dollar to a person on the street, whom you would normally pass by.
You can practice by taking home a pledge card and thinking about how much money you can give to Saint Mark’s, and the adding a little bit to what you think would be a reasonable amount.
Wait! you’ll say. Jesus didn’t say to give your money to the church; he said to give it to the poor!
And I stand proudly by this parish’s record of work with and for the poor and the needy: thirty-plus years of the Food Cupboard, eight years of feeding the hungry on Saturday mornings, two years, now of St. James School – which only serves the neediest families, two free medical clinics in Honduras.
And yes, we have lots of other bills to pay too, but I promise you that when you give, we can and do more and better ministry with the poor.
Practice giving your money away. Practice with me, because it’s good for you, as it is for me.
Practice giving your money away because it is part growing up spiritually, and outgrowing a kind of bondage that money traps so many of us in.
Practice giving your money away, because otherwise, I promise you, you are going to get stuck, under a tree, or in the eye of the needle. Or worse yet, you will never even start the journey, and you will go home sorrowful.
On my hike, I eventually made it up to the mountain pass that day. And then up and over successive mountain passes day after day for three weeks, until finally we reached the top of Mount Whitney, which is the highest mountain in the continental US: 14,500 feet. I’d call that a useful metaphor for the kingdom of God – no place higher to go!
How hard it is to get through the eye of a needle when we are not willing to let go of our money. But I promise you, if the view from the top f Mount Whitney bears even the tiniest resemblance to the view from the kingdom of God: it is worth it!
Look up! The kingdom of God beckons! And nothing can stop you, except you, yourself!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
14 October 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia