20th Sunday after Pentecost
27 October 2019
2 Timothy 4.6-8,16-18
Inviting all the dreamers to the table
It has been said that we all live in a 200-year-long present moment. You can calculate where your 200 years of influence on this planet falls by remembering the oldest person who has had contact with you down to the youngest. For example, my Aunty Midge whom I visited as a young child was born in 1890, and the youngest person with whom I have contact now was born in 2018. That child will likely live to 2090. This means that roughly my 200-year present moment on this earth of mutual connection, agency and influence is from 1890-2090.
Such a perspective helps us to see the bigger picture and to recognize that we are all in this together, even across such times of dramatic social change. One of the most damaging myths of our time is the idea of fundamental differences between generations, from Baby Boomers to Gen X,Y and Z. The media has been happy to support these divisions with inflammatory headlines like “teen thugs” or by portraying millennials as a generation of phone-addicted narcissists. Older generations are also victims of stereotyping in ways that increase hostility and social division, with baby boomers typically cast as selfish and entitled. It is surprising to me how accepted such generalizations are when we all know that human beings are all uniquely made in the image of God, shaped by a complex mix of genetics, family of origin and life experience together with our longings and our sorrows. We are not and never have been able to be defined by the generation into which we were born; the idea of the 200-year present moment perhaps gives a greater insight into our collective hopes and dreams.
When we buy into simplistic judgements of one another we are turning our back on the message of the gospel which declares that through Christ the barriers and tribalisms between people are broken down and we can find ourselves sitting around the table as one family. When we scorn one another, judge one another, treat one another with contempt….we are succumbing to the popular spirit of this age which keeps us living as individuals rather than community, in competition rather than accepting one another as family. The Church needs to be modelling the kind of radical community that recognizes the gift we each are to the whole. When some members, groups or even generations are absent or excluded it is impossible for the diverse and loving commonwealth of God to be fully revealed.
The reading from the prophet Joel points us to the power of all the voices being heard. In amongst the great visions of abundant rain and generous harvests and then terrible signs of destruction in the heavens and on earth, there is a promise
of God’s Spirit being poured out on all men and women in this wonderfully hopeful image of God working through all people together;
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Prophecy is never a comfortable gift, either for the bearer or the one who receives it, and the message can be even harder to receive when those dreams, visions and prophetic insights come from the mouths of the young.
Of course the young in Jesus’ time held a much lower social position than they do today. Children, particularly, embodied humility because they did not belong anywhere in terms of social importance.
Jesus is continually seeking out the outcasts and the marginalised in his ministry, and the children of his day belong to this group too- human beings ignored because they cannot engage with the political and economic power structures which determine everything.
So while this story of Jesus blessing the children is sometimes represented as Jesus being meek and gentle, the truth is that in granting the children the kingdom, Jesus is actually challenging the power systems of his day. It is subverting the framing story that the value of a human being is determined by their wealth and status, their age and experience, their usefulness and success.
Luke’s Gospel then follows this encounter with the entry of the rich member of the ruling class.
We know little about him, but what we do know suggests that he represents all that society does validate and respect; wealth, status, political influence and apparently righteous living. And yet this man walks away without feeling blessed.
The children are received just as they are and told that the kingdom of God belongs to them. The rich man asks how he can inherit the kingdom, and is given an answer that sends him away in sadness.
It is not that this man wasn’t prepared to change. You get the feeling from his question that if Jesus had given him a checklist of good works, he would have set off, keen to achieve them. After all, he came to Jesus with the purpose of asking the question, “What must I do?” He has apparently made something of himself in this life, and is perhaps trying to set about making something of himself in the next.
But Jesus doesn’t buy in to his self-help schemes.
Instead, he throws him a daunting challenge. See all you have done, all you have achieved? See all that you have accumulated of value? Get rid of it…give it away to your brothers and sisters in need…and then come follow me.
This, apparently, is the good news.
But how can it be good news that Jesus would give the kingdom to infants, and tell those who have worked and striven for success and wealth that they must give it all away?
This brings us to the enormous paradox that we constantly hold in tension as Christians: the gospel is both free and gracious and costly and demanding.
The rich man goes away in sadness. We don’t actually know if he was sad because he would never give his wealth away, or sad because he had decided to do it. The text certainly implies that the ask was too great as Jesus looks at the man’s sadness and says, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’
There is no getting around the fact that Jesus offers no support for a lifestyle that clings to possessions or puts individualism over community. What material wealth we choose to hang on to should make us tremble at the challenge of holding it lightly, so that it will not rule our lives and destroy our relationships.
Luke’s gospel particularly leaves us in no doubt of the dangers of money in preventing us from finding the far greater treasure of the kingdom of God. This treasure is the kind for which you would sell everything you had if you could gain it. It is a treasure which, when discovered, floods us with the mercy of God and then joyfully invites us to extend that same grace to others, overcoming the alienation that keeps us as enemies and strangers to one another.
There is strong evidence all around us today of division, such as those newspaper headlines that actually are geared to increasing hostility and division, particularly between old and young, rich and poor. We are called to resist joining the lazy chorus who scapegoat or treat difference with contempt, and instead lean in and listen to all the voices in the 200-year present moment offered to us. In this way we will bring our diverse gifts and abilities to the task of loving one another and caring for the planet which is our shared home.
The rich ruler who comes to Jesus wants to follow, but he is secure and the way involves leaving behind the story upon which he has constructed his life, and taking up a new one. Maybe he wasn’t ready to believe that the good news was better than what he already had going.
But Jesus doesn’t come making impossible demands to test us. Jesus comes to show us a better way- a way that is life-giving and liberating.
If you are tired and worn down by life, or doubt your commitment or strength… if you have ever felt judged for your age or generation… or as not useful, influential or successful enough….
Jesus says come- your presence is needed. Come and hear the good news. We are all in this together.
Recover your child-like wonder and humility, receive the blessing of God just as you are and lift up your voice with all the other visionaries and dreamers, rich and poor, young and old.
Come, for in this present moment, we need you to take your place at the table. +Amen.