|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, D.Min.
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
October 14, 2018
Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 23
I’ve been reading a book called Tattoos on the Heart by a Jesuit priest named Greg Boyle. It tells the story of his ministry with the youth – who he calls homies and homegirls—of gang-filled neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and it is at times insightful and inspiring and absolutely hilarious. Among the stories he tells is one about a time he visited a juvenile correctional facility to celebrate the Mass. One of the incarcerated youth was the lector, and he was also responsible for leading the psalm. It was the 23rd psalm, and he was to lead the congregation in repeating the refrain, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” Well, the young man practiced beautifully before the service, with a great voice and gestures and poise, but when the service began, and there were hundreds of people in the congregation, he veered off script. “Our response to the psalm this evening is, ‘The Lord…is nothing I shall want.’” And in response, the congregation awkwardly but dutifully echoed, “THE LORD IS NOTHING I SHALL WANT.”
As if last week’s gospel lesson on divorce wasn’t hard enough to deal with, this week Jesus has another strong dose of challenging teachings for those who would choose to follow him. But before we, too, declare that the Lord is “nothing I shall want,” I want to take a more careful look at today’s gospel story. Because before we can make sense of what Jesus says to the man who comes seeking the key to eternal life, and who receives one of the most striking and fear-inducing invitations in the gospels, we have to consider Jesus’ motivation for saying it.
The story is a familiar one to many of us, appearing in Mark, Matthew, and Luke’s gospels. A man comes to Jesus seeking the way to “inherit eternal life.” Jesus begins with a reminder to keep the commandments, but the man says he’s been faithful in observing them since childhood. You can almost hear him thinking, “There must be something else, something different, something more I could be doing…?” And then something remarkable happens, something unique among all the stories of Jesus’ encounters. Mark says, “Jesus, looking at the man, loved him.”
There’s so much in that little phrase that teaches us about who Jesus is and how he relates to us. So, I want to spend a little time right there in that moment, because without that moment the rest of the story, including the hard sayings about selling all your possessions and the spiritual perils of wealth, don’t make much sense.
First, Jesus looks at the man. And this sort of looking is not a passing glance or polite eye-contact. It’s a look that is not just about superficial observation, about seeing what’s on the outside, but about soulful appreciation, about seeing who the man is on the inside.
Can you remember a time when someone looked at you like that? I only remember it happening a few times in my life, but all of them were memorable, because it felt a lot like I was naked, like they were seeing behind the curtain, behind the masks, behind all the barriers we all put up. Well, the look of Jesus is just that sort of gaze. When he looks at this man, he sees beyond everything to the core made-in-the-image-of-God essence of the man’s identity.
We don’t do enough of this kind of looking, do we? Oh, we notice plenty of things about one another. Age and race and gender, socioeconomic level, profession… things like that. Sizing people up, you know. But a deeper sort of looking is rare, because to look with soulful appreciation and not just superficial observation requires you to be interested in a person’s dignity and worth. You have to care about them as though God made them on purpose, which, of course, God did. So, a goal for this week is to look at someone like this, like Jesus, and to try it with someone who, if you’re honest, you don’t particularly like very much.
But be careful – and not just so you don’t creep them out by staring. Be careful, because you are likely to experience what happened when Jesus looked at the man in the story. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus loves the man. He loves him for all the things that make him who he is. He loves him for his earnestness and yearning. He loves him for his hopeful heart. And he loves him for no reason at all, other than he knows this man is one of God’s beloved children.
And it’s the same when he looks at us, too. When Jesus looks at us, he sees beyond all the masks, beyond the version we share on Facebook, beyond our efforts to pretend that we’ve been keeping the rules since we were kids. He really, truly sees you. And what he sees, he loves. It’s crazy, I know. It even seems like a cliché to say that Jesus loves you, but it’s the most important and life-altering truth I could ever stand up here and say. Jesus, looking at you, loves you.
And the thing about how Jesus loves us is that he loves us both for who we are, and for who we could be. That’s what happens with the man in the story, isn’t it? Jesus is able to see who the man would become, could become, should become. He knows that in this moment this man is readier than ever before to take the next big step. And from that place of love, for who he was, who he is, and who he could become, Jesus says, “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.”
Isn’t it true that we are much more willing to hear hard, challenging things from people we know genuinely love us? People can say things to us that are hard to hear, if we really believe they love us and have our best interests at heart. We may bristle at what they say, but we will take it seriously. We will entertain their perspective…if we know they love us.
The challenge for us these days is that too many of us are ready to tell other people to change, but the starting place of our desire for their change is too often contempt, not love. That’s essentially what we do on social media, isn’t it? We want to change people’s attitudes or actions, their beliefs or their politics, but the reason is that we resent who they are, rather than love who they are. That may make us feel better, but that’s about all it will do…because if we want to change or challenge anything, as Christians, the starting place has always got to be love.
Now, perhaps what you’re thinking is that all this sounds good and all, but what happened to the man? Doesn’t the story say that he went away grieving, because he had many possessions? In fact, a lot has been written down through the centuries about how this is the only person in all of the gospels who actually walks away from an invitation to discipleship. But the truth is, we don’t actually know what this man did after he walked away. Maybe he really didn’t ever look back…maybe he didn’t change a bit…maybe it really was too hard, too big, too much.
Or, maybe…the man got home and couldn’t stop thinking about how Jesus had looked at him – really looked at him – with love in his eyes. And then, maybe, he found himself walking around inside his beautiful house and beginning to notice how many of the things he owned he didn’t actually need or even care about. And maybe, one day he started giving things away. Just a few at first, but then, it got a lot easier the more he did it. Until finally whole rooms were empty, and he realized that his beautiful house was far too large for one person, so he sold it. And maybe he used the money to invest in several small businesses owned by widows, and provide safe homes for a few orphans, and feed the hungry in his town.
Who knows? Maybe the words of Jesus, and the gaze of Jesus, and the love of Jesus worked on him every day for the rest of his life, changing him bit by bit. Maybe the grace of Jesus whittled his camel down over a lifetime until it finally could pass through the eye of a needle.
Jesus is looking at you. He’s looking, even now, right down into the core of your soul, and what he sees, he loves. And he has more for you, too, because he loves who you are now, and also who you are meant to be. Which is why he’s asking you, just like the man in the story, to drop the possession-rich but spiritually-bankrupt rat race of this world and choose something infinitely better. And you can hear in that invitation an impossible challenge that no mere mortal could perform. Or you can hear in it an invitation that, by the grace of God, you can choose to accept as something to pursue, to move toward every day, as the goal of your life.
So, may the loving gaze of Jesus keep working its way down into your soul. May you feel his deep love for who you are… and for who you can become. And may the words of Jesus, and the eyes of Jesus, and the love of Jesus work on all of us bit by bit, every day, for the rest of our lives.
 Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, 157.