The Sunday Sermon: Lessons Continually Learned

Proper 23/Year B
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

I recently told my story at our Spiritual Autobiography class, and I was reminded of the adage, which I cannot remember the exact words of, but it’s something like, “the past isn’t.” Meaning, obviously things happen to us prior to the present moment, but as do, they become part of us, and very clearly affect us in the present.
So as we grow, change, hopefully mature, certainly age, our perspective on life changes, and lessons once learned often have to be relearned given the present context of our lives.

A friend really made this point for me a couple of years ago following the death of his father. He came from a particularly close knit family, and fortunately they were all able to be there for each other for a good while, leading up to the time of his father’s death. And it sounds like it went “well,” in the sense they could say goodbye to him and support each other through the process.

Afterwards, with the passage of time, my friend eventually got to the place where he still felt sad, but his life went on, and all things considered, he was doing fine. But about 6 months or so after his father died, he was driving one day and heard some random song on the radio and there was just something about it, perhaps the words or the melody, it just touched him and he became so overcome by emotion, he had to pull his car over to the side of the road.

He said later, he was surprised by the intensity of what he felt. Not that he expected to be “over” his father’s death but still his emotions were a curious blend of great sadness—both for the death of his father, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the love of his family. And he realized then, it would probably take him his entire life to learn to fully appreciate and understand what took place, really during the last year of his father’s life.

I think it is basic human nature, or at least wishful thinking, to want to be done when we come to the other side of lose or particularly challenging time. But how we continue to process those times over the course of our lives, often points us to areas we need to look at—new lessons to be learned, even from old facts.

Of course, it’s no different in our faith lives. Lessons learned along the way, are seldom learned only once. In fact, they tend to recycle themselves because like life in general, a life of faith isn’t static. In fact, at its very core, faith is an ongoing conversion process with the power to continually take us to increasingly deeper places. Which in turn, often casts previous lessons in a new or different light.

I was reminded of this, when I began preparing for this sermon and saw the Gospel reading from Mark was of the man with many possessions, asking Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. And probably because I had just recently told my story at the Spiritual Autobiography Class, I was reminded of the time I was going through the Diocesan Discernment process for ordination.

Now, as I have told this story relatively recently, I’ll give the Reader’s Digest version. I told God (told being the operative term), I would go through the discernment process if I could keep my job, my boyfriend, and my car. God allowed me to keep this illusion for a while, but in the end I quit my job, broke up with my boyfriend, and sold my car.

It was without a doubt, one of the hardest things I have ever done, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that my sense of security and identity were tied in some way to all three.

So as I was reading the parable again, my initial thought was thank heavens, I’ve already been through this—I did what Jesus asked the man to do—gave up position, things, and even a cherished relationship, in order to follow him.

But then almost immediately, my next thought was really? Who says you do this only once? Then came the even more frightening thought: what if I have to do it again?
And in that moment, it became clear, this will probably be a lesson I will have to grapple with all my life, despite any wishful thinking to the contrary.

I suspect it is for most, if not all of us, if we’re honest with ourselves.

Jesus tells his disciples it is hard for those with wealth, or as you read further into today’s Gospel reading, deep attachments to family, loved ones, home, things, attitudes—which pretty much includes all of us—to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, he says, for mortals it’s impossible.

But then he reminds his disciples, and us, it is not impossible with God: for with God all things are possible

And it is here—all things are possible with God—we begin to get a glimpse of what salvation and grace look like. We do not need to be possessed by our attachments because God possesses us first.

But at the same time, we are not to be passive recipients of God’s salvation and grace, for this parable calls us, during our entire lifetimes, to put things into proper perspective, to continually ask ourselves, with God’s help, what can be some pretty difficult questions: what am I doing or not doing that keeps me from God? What do I have, or perhaps even don’t have, that holds me back from following Jesus? What lessons do I need to learn or relearn so I can not only come to know God in a deeper way, but be an instrument of God’s salvation and grace?

Questions which can lead to some pretty difficult answers because they can lead us into making some hard decisions or choices.

But once again, the words of Jesus have the ability to cut through any fear, insecurity, or unease we may have: nothing is impossible with God.

Theologian and blogger, Sarah Dylan Breuer puts it beautifully 1

But the Good News is that, as Jesus said, nothing is impossible
with God. It might take some deep shocks to jolt us out of our old perspectives. If we find ourselves sometimes looking at the magnitude
of transformation to which Jesus’ Way calls us and our world and
saying, “How is this possible? Who on earth can be saved?” that’s probably a good sign. It can mean that we’re ready to make some different choices with potentially radical consequences, to throw ourselves — all we have and all we are — on God’s mercy. And the
Good News is that God’s mercy is beyond human reckoning, deeper
and taller and broader than even the brokenness of the world that
God is healing and reconciling.

We are never on the journey of faith alone.

So, if I was called again to give up something or somethings I consider significant, would I? Could I? I’d like to think so, but trust me, it was hard enough the last time and the stakes are higher now because I love my life so much more. But, the lesson for me to remember is how the wonderful life I have is the result of God leading me away from the one I had before.

We see throughout the Gospels, Jesus never asks us to change, give things up, or take things on merely for their own sake, but rather so we can inherit eternal life—life spent abiding in the presence of the One who loves us with a kind of love that is greater and deeper, than any kind of love we can humanly imagine. One which will never betray our trust or lead us to a place we should not go.

So when faced with hard choices, or a difficult path, it is important for us to remember this and know we are always held close each step of the way.

It’s a lesson we may have to relearn from time to time, but nonetheless one we can carry close to our hears all the days of our lives.

The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas

 14 October 2012

1. Sarah Dylan Breuer, “Dylan’s Lectionary Blog, Proper 23, Year B”

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