Sermons

Creature Comforts; Rev. Dee Ledger, October 14, 2018

What are your personal creature comforts?  What are those things that you would miss so much that your brain would start crying out without them, things that can soothe your soul like no other, things that are #1 on your list of must-haves?  I know that warm showers, pressed laundry, and freshly ground coffee are some of those things for me.  Especially in the morning.  Especially the warmth of a hot shower, the smell of that first miraculous cup of coffee from the coffeemaker, and the feel of clean, crisp clothes on my body.   Everything—including my body—works better with those things.  I am a nicer person with those things.  Cold showers make me energetic, but crabby.  Wrinkled clothes remind me too much of my wrinkled, imperfect life.  And without that first cup of coffee, I am barely cordial.  What are your personal creature comforts?  Bill Bryson, a travel writer, once reflected: “I sat on a toilet watching the water run thinking what an odd thing tourism is. You fly off to a strange land, eagerly abandoning all the comforts of home and then expend vast quantities of time and money in a largely futile effort to recapture the comforts you wouldn’t have lost if you hadn’t left home in the first place.”[1]

Please keep your creature comforts in mind as we consider our passage from Mark.  A similar story shows up in the other gospels too.  In those versions this man is either a “young man” or a “certain ruler,” but in today’s story he is just a “man” who runs up to Jesus just as Jesus is about to set off on a journey.  This man stops Jesus and questions him about the one “creature comfort” he does not have.  This man wants eternal life.  He craves and wants this access.   In some ways, he feels as if he deserves this experience.  He thinks that he is entitled to this.

Notice what he does not say.  Notice that he doesn’t say how grateful he is that God has blessed him with so much, while others have so little.  Notice that he does not credit his parents or guardians for the life or the foundation they have given him.  Notice that he is focused on his inheritance—albeit an eternal, spiritual inheritance that eludes him, but an inheritance nonetheless.  And notice also that he is focused on what he wants and needs, and not what others lack.  Nor is he questioning the fairness of others lacking more than he does, or asking how he might personally improve their lot.  Notice that he is concerned for his individual well-being, rather than the collective well-being of others.  Right now, he wants what he doesn’t have: eternal life.

I feel some sympathy for the man.  He knows that there is something more to his life and living than what he has currently found.  All his life, he has been spiritually directed and goal-focused.  He knows that there is more to life than his creature comforts.  He recognizes that all he has done up until now, and all he has desired and sought has not allowed him to get to a place of spiritual health.  He may have his creature comforts, but he has this troubling need too.  Contentment eludes him.

Then the Teacher comes.  So the man wisely uses the moment at hand, while he has this “good” teacher in front of him and no one to keep him from asking his heart’s question. “Good Teacher,” he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  One might rightly question how this rich man even defines eternal life and why he wants it. Is access to the kingdom for status purposes?  Is it for utilitarian reasons?  Is it another mark of achievement in the company of his peers?  We don’t know.

Jesus answers his question by reminding him of the commandments.  “You know the commandments,” Jesus says…and then he lists several.   “But, Teacher,” the man persists, “I have kept all these since my youth.”  It is right about here when I get annoyed and a bit sarcastic with this man.  “Really?” I want to say.  “Really?  You have kept all the commandments up until now with nary an issue?” I wonder about that first commandment—you know the one.  “You shall have no other Gods before me.”  I wonder about that because I know how easy it is to put other smaller gods – like money, time, my morning coffee, warm shower, and hot iron, before God, even before pleasantness with others.  I know what it is to worship the wrong thing at the wrong time. But my self-righteous response doesn’t leave me off the hook, even if the man—unlike me– was truly able to follow that first commandment with no lapses.

Like the man, there are times when we may have believed and felt that we dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s, believing that this would preserve us from calamity.  Or we put in our 20 years, by God, at whatever task and now believe that we’ve earned our time to rest easier.  Or we followed the rules, kept the faith, didn’t make trouble, and now we believe that we are entitled to a little peace, a little gratitude, and perhaps a place of honor to boot.   And those others who haven’t? “Well, their downfall will be their own,” we may quietly think to ourselves.  We often don’t speak these things aloud, but there is a small competition going on in our heads with others, and we often suppose that we are the ones who should finish the race with a respectable lead.  Until that one question or circumstance or fissure in our carefully constructed life starts to implode us from the inside. Why are we still so unsettled?

Our man has the perfect spiritual resume with regards to the commandments, the teachings, and the instruction, or so we are led to believe.  Yet the man has missed something along the way.  Can you name it for him?  Can you name it for yourself?  What is that one thing that keeps you from following God the way you had hoped?  What is that one thing that holds you back from being more generous with your life, your heart, and your wallet?

When Jesus tells this man to go and sell what he owns and give the money to the poor, the man is left shocked and grieving.  The man has many possessions and relinquishment will not come easy.  To give away what he has stockpiled, to give away the signs of his status, importance, and privilege is not an easy thing.  To voluntarily reduce oneself when much of society says “expand” –bigger, better, fuller, faster—is to choose a hard and unpopular quest.

Yet, even this doesn’t seem enough for that elusive eternal life.  After the relinquishment, Jesus tells the man to distribute the money to the poor.  The man finds this task impossible.  You can almost imagine the downcast eyes and the shuffling feet.  That the man has wealth is not the problem.  The problem is that he is altogether fused with his possessions.  He is too attached.  And that attachment restricts his access to the kind of eternal life—kingdom life–that Jesus is preaching and teaching.

At least one commentator on this passage also cautions us to remember that this rich man was likely a landowner with servants.  In this society having wealth likely meant having slaves or peasants to work for you.   When Jesus says “Sell all you have,” he’s not just talking about land. He is telling him, “Set your servants free!” When Jesus says, “Give the proceeds to the poor,” he’s not talking about writing a check to some charitable foundation. The poor people are not hidden out-of-sight. They are the rich man’s servants, and well-known. No one in that society was rich without owning land, and no one owned land without having poor, tenant farmers to work it.[2]

So where does that leave you and me?  What creature comforts are you willing to relinquish for a life not bound by possessions?  Perhaps you don’t have an issue with possessions or creature comforts.  Still, there may be something that causes you to walk away from God with downcast eyes and a heavy heart.  What is it?  What would it be like for you to imagine your life at peace with God and your neighbor?  What is preventing you from living that peace right now, while the Teacher is still standing before you?  These are questions for us to live into this week.

Remember, the rich man in this story is someone Jesus loves.  When Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” you might substitute your own strong creaturely attachment and imagine God gently unprying your grip on that attachment.

Lastly, here is a cautionary tale from our Jewish sisters and brothers:

One day a Rabbi visited a rich man in the village.  After some conversation, the Rabbi took the rich man by the hand and led him to a window. “What do you see?” asked the Rabbi.  “Well,” said the man, “I see my neighbors and friends.”  Then the Rabbi took the man to a large ornate mirror.  “What do you see?” asked the Rabbi.  The man stumbled and answered, “I only see myself.”  “What else do you see?” asked the Rabbi.  “I see my furniture, my belongings, and the things of this house.”

Well,” said the Rabbi, “when you looked in the mirror you could only see yourself and the things that belong to you. You could see much more when you looked out the window. Then you could see all your neighbors and friends from the whole town.”

“That is true,” said the man. “A mirror and a window are both made from glass. The window is transparent. Light can pass right through it. It is clear and you can see everything through it. The mirror, on the other hand, is covered with silver on one side. The rays of light cannot pass through, and therefore a mirror can only reflect what is in front of it.”

“I see,” said the Rabbi and nodded his head. “I see. The piece of glass that is plain is clear through and through, allowing you to see others and their lives. But when you add the silver to it, then you can see only yourself. “Hmm, very interesting. It is really quite fantastic, isn’t it? Now do you think it will work the other way too? Could you take a mirror and scrape off the silver so that you would be able to see everyone else instead of yourself?”[3]

 

Sisters and brothers, where might a little silver be removed so that you might see your neighbors and your God a little better?  What of yours might you decrease, so that another might find increase?  What creature comfort is, in the fantastic economics of Jesus’ kingdom, actually no comfort at all?

 

[1] Bill Bryson, Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe.

[2] Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, A Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Fortress, 2003).

[3] Adapted, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3252/jewish/The-Mirror.htm