Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
Some years ago, the Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola said the following in a speech he delivered to the Executive Club of Chicago: “At the Coca-Cola Company, we have built and grown for more than 110 years. Remaining disciplined to our mission has brought us to remarkable places. Not long ago, we did some research and came up with an interesting set of facts. A billion hours ago, human life appeared on Earth. A billion minutes ago, Christianity emerged. A billion seconds ago, the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. A billion Coca-Colas ago was yesterday morning.” (1)
If you think about it, it is really amazing just how much stuff there is in the world. Stuff we make and sell, stuff we buy, stuff we hold onto and value. A billion Coca-Colas produced and marketed in a little over twenty-four hours – what an amazing (and although I love a cold Coke) frightening factoid.
The history of humanity’s relationship with God has really been one of deciding which we value more – our God or our stuff. The Bible is riddled with stories of those who have placed power, wealth, food, security and comfort at the center of their lives and ended up disappointed. In the Bible God is always trying to pull his people away from their dependence on stuff and replace that with a dependence on him.
In our Gospel for today a man runs up to Jesus and wants to know the recipe for eternal life. Jesus is annoyed with the question – “You know the commandments,” he replies, as if to say, “I am not here to give you recipes for salvation. “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” replies the man. Perhaps he hoped Jesus would then say – “Well done good and faithful servant, you have followed the instructions, you have therefore earned the gift of eternal life.” But salvation can’t be earned and Jesus knew more about this young fella than the man would have liked. Our Lord looked into his soul and saw the truth of his life. He saw that while he was good at keeping the rules, he was not good at holding onto his heart. In fact, he had given his heart to another – it was a prisoner of his possessions, a captive of his wealth. Jesus presses the young man – “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.” The man’s face falls; here is one thing he cannot do. Give him rules to follow, but do not ask him to give up his security, his safety net. The young man must have thought, “That is too hard Jesus, why would you demand such a thing? Isn’t my good behavior enough? I have followed all the rules. Doesn’t that count for something?” I imagine Jesus would have said, “You can’t earn your way into heaven. All you can do is remove all that stands between you and God and let God do the rest. What God wants is not just your obedience but you heart and soul as well.”
There is a story out there that when Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for someone who is rich to enter to Kingdom of God,” he is not at all talking about camels fitting through the hole in the top of a sewing needle. Rather, the story goes, Jesus is referring not to a thing but to a place. The eye of the needle is really a small gate that leads into the city of Jerusalem. During the day in ancient Palestine the large gates to the city were wide open so that people on foot, as well as caravans of horses and camels, could enter and exit the booming metropolis. But at night, these large gates were closed to protect the city from a surprise attack by large numbers of soldiers on horseback. Those who wanted to enter the city after hours had to go through small gates and one of these was called the Eye of the Needle. These small gates were tall enough for a person to fit through, but they were not tall enough for horses and camels to fit through without some difficulty. In fact, as the story goes, in order for a camel to pass through the Eye of the Needle, it had to be forced down upon its knees and made to crawl. Only by crawling would it be low enough to clear the top of the gate. And for the purposes of our gospel for this morning, this implies that the rich can only enter heaven through humility – by acknowledging that God is the source of their salvation, they will not and cannot be saved by their wealth or achievements.
Some of you may have heard this story about the gate. As interesting as it is, it is probably not what Jesus was referring to in our gospel lesson this morning. However, when Marshall was very small he was given a little book of Jesus’ parables. This little book tells the story of many of the most famous of Jesus’ teachings in simple and yet profound ways. It is entitled, Stories Jesus Told, and their rendition of our gospel for today is called, “The Little Gate.” In twenty-five beautifully illustrated pages the authors tell the story of a young boy trying to get a large camel who is fully loaded down with stuff through the very small entrance that leads into the city. They show the camel trying to duck through the opening but not coming close. They show the boy turning the camel around an attempting to push his bottom through the door but he will not fit. The little boy then makes the camel kneel down and shuffle his way towards the little gate. Now, the head and neck of the camel will make it through because the camel is no longer standing, but he carries too much stuff for the rest of him to clear the opening. Slowly the boy begins to unload the camel. He removes the expensive carpets loaded high on the camel’s back, but still the camel won’t fit. Finally, he removes the camel’s beautiful saddle and blanket and only then by crouching as low as possible is the camel able to squeeze his way through the opening in the little gate. “Without his fine saddle,” the authors write, “the camel does not look proud and important any more. He is just an ordinary camel.”
As people of wealth and means you and I are piled high with the stuff of life. Most of us are not millionaires, but we have all been blessed with the comforts and conveniences of life that millions in our world will never know. And for a lot of us, the stuff we have accumulated rides high on our shoulders. We are proud of what we have accomplished, of what we have been able to earn through our hard work. We are proud of our degrees, our titles, and our material possessions. But like the camel laden with carpets and an ornate saddle, the stuff of our lives can get in the way of us ever entering God’s Kingdom. It is not that we do not love God. It is not that we are disobedient to the demands of our God. In fact, like the rich young man, many of us are very good at following the rules. But the problem is, we hold on so tightly to our stuff that it comes between God and us, because it becomes more important than God.
Everyone who calls himself or herself a disciple of Christ must sooner or later wrestle with the truth that giving our hearts to God means unburdening ourselves from the stuff we carry with us that makes us feel too important and too self sufficient. Does that mean we are supposed to give away all our money to the poor? Maybe, if your money is more important to you than God. Ultimately, only you can know what, if anything, you place as a barrier between you and God. What I do know is that if each of us would simply loosen our grip a little on the loads we carry, we might be able to lay them down and see that they are not quite as precious as we thought. As Oscar Wilde once said, “There are two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” May God grant us the grace to want that in life which we most need. May God bless us so that what we end up getting is worth the wanting. Amen.
1. Roberto C. Goizueta, November 20, 1996, Taken from Vital Speeches of the Day, January 15, 1997, p. 201.