It has been said that every journey begins with that first step. Very often, that step is a step into the unknown. But, it is a step into the future. Each time we decide to make a change or try something new, we take that step into the future. I believe that this last year and a half has taught us in the Church that each day can be a step into the unknown future, but we still have to take that step.
Today’s Gospel places us into a story of first steps.
A man comes to see Jesus. He is first identified as “a man,” but later on in the story, we find out he is wealthy. Luke calls him a “ruler,” and Matthew refers to him being “young.” In Christian tradition, he is often called “the rich young ruler.” But for Mark, he is just a man.
This man has “great possessions,” although we are not quite sure what those possessions are. But he comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit “eternal life.” Jesus, as he often does in these situations, reframes the question from the future to the present. The answer that Jesus provides is not what he has to do to make sure he gets a seat in heaven; Jesus tells him that he must go, get rid of his stuff, and then follow him.
As Jesus often does, he shifts the focus of the question in terms of this idea that the Kingdom of God is not on some far-off cloud in the sky but rather, the Kingdom of God is right here, in the present and that this Kingdom of God is going to require a different set of rules and different behavior.
The disciples have been a witness to a very painful moment for this man. Jesus tells him that although he has followed the law, he still lacks one thing. Jesus says he must go and sell all that he has, give the money to the poor, and then he will be able to follow. Scripture tells us he goes away sorrowful for he had many possessions. Some translations use the word grieving rather than sorrowful, which is a better word choice.
One of the things that I find troubling is the lack of awareness that grief comes with any loss. Most of society believes that grief comes only with the death of one that we love, a human that we love. But this is not the case. Greif comes with any loss, be it human, pet, job, position, Church, friend, mobility, the Patriots losing….. Any loss can cause grief.
This man went away grieving, and tradition assumes he went away grieving because he had so much that he was unwilling to part with all he had. But what if there was another reason for his grief? What if he went away grieving because he had decided to sell all that he had and follow Jesus? This bold action would come with some level of emotion. This would have been a decisive step into the future that would result in the emotional letting go of all that he had and all of the relationships that come with that possession.
Letting go is difficult. I may have mentioned this before, but one of the hardest things I have had to do is clean out my parent’s house after my father died. My brothers and I had the duty of clearing out 65 years of possessions. Things that my parents had collected all during their lives. Each item held memories for me. This was the only home I had ever really lived in, and now it was gone.
It took weeks to decide what to throw away, what to donate, what to keep, and what to sell. Some items, more than others, cause immense pain in making those decisions. But in the end, we did it, and I walked out of that house for the last time. I had never seen that house empty before, and it was very different. The stuff of life holds remembrances for us, and they are difficult to part with.
One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1959 Fred Zinnerman classic the Nun Story starring Miss Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn is living in prewar Belgium and has a desire to become a nursing sister in the Congo. She has spent her entire life preparing and training for this moment. But, as part of her entrance into the religious order, she is joining, she must rid herself of all of her earthly possessions and, we find out later her memories.
At one point, a basket is passed. The nuns-to-be are supposed to place all of the items they may have left of their previous life in the basket. But, when it comes around to Hepburn, she pauses. She has a small gold pen that her father had given her, her last possessions, and her memories. She does not put it in the basket; she keeps it. Her grief at the thought of putting that pen in the basket is more than she can handle. So, it passes her by.
In the end, she leaves the convent. She finds that her memories and her pride keep getting in the way of her being able to be a good nun, as well as a good nurse.
We do not know what happens to the man from the Gospel story because we never hear of him again. All we know is he went away sorrowful and grieving because of the decision he would have to make.
Now, this story is not an indictment of rich people, far from it. Yes, Jesus says it will be harder for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, but again, Jesus does not have disdain for the rich. It’s not what we have the prevents us from truly following Jesus; it’s what we do with it. Are we maximizing our potential? Are we using all of our gifts to help others?
Each of us has been given gifts from God that we are to use in the Kingdom of God, which is not on some far-off cloud but right here in Hull, and Hingham, and Weymouth, and wherever else we might find ourselves. Part of our spiritual journey is identifying those gifts and using them to their fullest potential.
Holding back keeps us from being a follower of Jesus Christ but learning to let go and learning to share takes time, and it takes practice. But it all begins with that first step.