I wish I’d gotten off another plane this week, so I could rewrite my sermon and avoid Jesus’ comment about how hard it is for those who have wealth to get into the Kingdom of God. Not a top 10 favorite on an annual appeal Sunday, particularly in Seattle, where stock portfolios and property values are soaring, But here is why we’re going to take it on: because we know that when we get behind, and underneath, and above the text we encounter the intentions of Jesus, and this is always good news; it is always good for our souls even if it is uncomfortable.
To give us a framework today for tackling this scripture, I want to call our minds back to the book I invited us to read this summer: Hope in A Time of Fear, by Timothy Keller. He writes about three aspects of life: the hard things, the good things, and the best things.
Let’s begin in the middle with the good things because they are good enough. In fact, the good things, if you are like me, are often the things I focus on; like a good home, a good car, a good vacation, a good body, a good retirement, a good job, and all of these goods for my children as well. These are part and parcel of the good life, and their attainment may be good enough.
But Keller writes that the Christian perspective claims we cannot attain the best things by way of the good things. In fact, he argues, the good things may be a stumbling block in getting to the best things. You see, good things come, and good things go, and eventually they go for good, because you can’t take them with you. But the best things are like a little orchestra in our heart, playing joyful music, irrespective of the circumstances we find ourselves in.
The best things are things that adhere to our soul. They are things like fellowship and friendship; they are worship and prayer and song and poetry; they are present and ethereal; they are the things we overcome, and promises we keep; and joy and beauty and love.
Think about the best times in your life. I doubt they are associate with good things achieved, as much as they are best things that materialize out of nowhere.
I’ll give you an example: buying a car with Chinn. Many of you remember Chinn, our former business manager. Well, it turns out she used to own a used car dealership before coming to Epiphany. (Now she’s running a Chinese restaurant in Everett, called Chinnie’s. Shout out for Chinnie’s!).
Anyway, she went with me to negotiate buying a 2008 Toyota Highlander I found, and she negotiated me right out of the car. She told me not to worry, we’d find a better deal… which was probably true, but I wasn’t that committed to a broader search, so, I took a Lyft back to the dealership, and bought the car at the very good price she had negotiated.
The car has been a good thing, but the best thing was the joy that came from Chinn’s faithful friendship, and to witness her tenacity, fearlessness,s and unyielding heart; and how she employed it for my benefit alone. And what I suspect is that this best thing emerged from some hard things in her life that happened growing up under the Khmer Rouge communists of Cambodia. Her determination and trust that there would be something better, and her willingness to never leave somebody behind…these are the best things that she shared with me, from her soul to my soul.
This is how I think about the best things: they are things we will hold out as offerings to God when we meet face to face; AND they are the things that reflect the love of God to those we meet in the moment as well. So, Chinn’s determination and trust and faithful friendship were a gift shared with me in the moment, and they are what she will offer to God when she meets God face-to-face. (Are you with me?)
Let me say it a different way: the best things are both deeply present in you in the moment and are embossed upon your soul for eternity. The best things are eternally dynamic and intimately present at the same time. And it is very often, if not always the case, that the best things are born within us through the hardest things of life. They are revealed in the suffering, and the grief, and the failure, and the pain. Everyone has experienced hard things, and for most of us, we keep them on the inside, and that is OK, as long as they live there to remind us that others too have hard things that their hearts have endured.
Let me tell you a story many of you have heard before. It is a story of my hardest thing becoming my best thing. As a kid I was diagnosed with dyslexia. That meant three times a week going to private tutoring from first grade to eighth grade, where I learned to study, and to organize my time, and to read… all of which gave me a love for the academic life, which probably led me to the priesthood.
Mrs. Winkelmann, my tutor, gave me the tools to attain the good life: I got into college, and I met my wife there (a best thing), and I got good jobs, and I became a priest… all good things. But the best thing I received was her love for a little kid who was struggling with a hard thing, and that love has adhered to my souls.
The greatest example of a hard thing leading to a best thing is the cross to resurrection. Jesus chose to do the hardest thing. He did not have to go to the cross, he chose to. Make no mistake about it, the second person of the Trinity came into this world with the power of divinity and did not have to die. But he did so to reveal the love of God to the whole world, across all time, through the resurrection. For God’s love to be known, the cross had to be freely chosen. Jesus chose to do the hardest thing, to reveal to us the best thing: God’s love embossed upon our souls.
Everything falls somewhere between the cross and resurrection, even pulling a camel through the eye of a needle… because with God all things are possible. Now don’t be distracted today trying to figure out how to get a camel through the eye of the needle, because that would be to miss Jesus’ intentions.
Let’s take a closer look at the reading to see what Jesus is getting at. A rich young man comes to Jesus, and asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds: “What does the Bible say?” The young man recites the law, which is his culture’s definition of the good thing. Jesus says: “Well done,” affirming that there’s nothing wrong with good things: a good car, or a good school, or a good job, or a good home, or a good vacation, or a good law. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but, and this is the intention of the story, they are not the best things. Because Jesus loves this man he wants the best things for him, he wants those things that he can carry with him into eternal life… which is the answer to the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Seek the best things.
So, Jesus invites him to sell what he owns, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. The young man is not willing to do that, and walks away sad, bound to the good things, which are good, but, in his case, have cost him his best life.
It is important at this point to note that we are observing a theological formula here, rather than an injunction about wealth. Jesus is inviting at this young man to name his good things, then set them lower than his best things, which are mined from the hard things of life. Here is the formula: Set the good, below the best, taken from the hardest. This is what Jesus is talking about when he says: “Take up your cross and follow me.“ It is the hardwood of the cross that reveals the best love of resurrection.
And so, it is not that Jesus condemns wealth, though he does insinuate that the more good things we are juggling the more likely they will distract us from the best things, but the formula is not built around money, it is about priorities: the good thing below the best thing which emerges from the hardest thing.
Epiphany is designed to be a place where we mine our hard things in pursuit of our best things. Here we understand that everyone encounters hard things. No one get out of this life without pain and suffering and regret, and yet, in the midst there is God…Emmanuel- God with us.
The hard things are part of being human. And they are an invitation that, when accepted, show us what we are to hold out as an offering to God from our lives. The young man turned down this particular invitation, and what he missed seeing was how much Jesus loved him… “Jesus looked at him,” the text says, “and loved him…” and the young man missed the moment. And yet, there will be more moments. There will be other gazes from God that we glean. The resurrection is the punctuation of that promise.
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