The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
The Baptism of Grace Smith
Today we’re baptizing Grace Williamson Smith, daughter of Jenner and Kelly Smith and granddaughter of Cheryl and David, whom most of us know. Grace was born in January and has been a real gift to the family through the ups and downs of the past year with the loss of a beloved father, husband and grandfather. David will always be part of this parish, and I know his presence will be felt today.
Grace is a wonderful name. Of course as a priest I’m going to say that. The whole of Christian doctrine hinges on it. The Oxford theological dictionary defines grace as “the free and unmerited favour of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” And further down, “A divinely given talent or blessing.” My favorite definition of grace came from the sign outside Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights that I used to pass by on my way to a friend’s house: grace is “effortless beauty.” I think that can be said of all babies, and children. Their beauty is absolute, and effortless. And we’re so blessed to have them in our lives.
So welcome to the Smith family, their friends, and everyone here today for this happy occasion.
You’ll notice this year that we have moved our Annual Appeal to November. Normally this would be the first or second Sunday of asking you to help support our budget for 2019. The month of November seemed better for that, since we’re all in a grateful and generous frame of mind then (that’s what I’m hoping). But these readings we get in October can be so hard. They really don’t make it easy for those trying to convince people to give generously. This is the first time ever I haven’t had to link this Gospel reading in some awkward way to a stewardship appeal.
What we’ve just heard is a story we know well, and it’s an uncomfortable one. A rich young man approaches Jesus and asks him what he must do to gain eternal life, to go to heaven. The man says he has already followed all the commandments. Jesus replies Well then you lack one thing (just this one little thing!): sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come follow me. The man shakes his head and walks away, and then, turning aside to the disciples Jesus says that famous line: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.In one of my favorite sermons on this passage, the preacher recalls reading this story for the first time as a child, a little girl. She was in bed, and found it so upsetting that she sprung up out of bed, ran downstairs to her mother and said “Mom, Jesus said that rich people won’t get into heaven!” To which her mother replied, “We’re not rich. Go back to bed.”
I’m not letting you off that easy. And please don’t come to me after the service and tell me–I think every time I’ve preached this passage in the past someone has done this–that the “eye of a needle” was the name of a small gate in the Jerusalem city wall. And that if you really squeezed, you could get your camel through.
If you haven’t gone to bed hungry in the last week. If you’ve had a roof over your head. If you’ve bought something you didn’t absolutely need for your basic survival. If you’re not worried (I mean really worried) about heating your home this winter, or buying groceries, then you are rich. This message is meant for you, and it’s hard, and there’s no getting around that.
However … however … if you look at it closely, there’s a surprising amount of kindness in this tough encounter.
Take the disciples. They were probably among the poor. The Gospels hint at their status when we find them gleaning one day in the fields. Farmers were required by Jewish law to leave the gleanings, the grain not gathered by the harvesters, for the poor. You and I would not need to glean in the fields. But they did.
When the rich young man walks away downtrodden because he can’t follow this hard command, the disciples don’t deride him or smirk or have a laugh at his expense. They’re not smug or self-righteous because they’ve left everything, what little they had. They take his side. “Who then can be saved?” In fact, they’re outraged, for him.
Then there’s Jesus’ attitude toward this young man. His answer to that question, “who then can be saved?” is one of the most surprising moments in the Gospels. Jesus doesn’t say, “Obviously not this man.” He says, “With God all things are possible.” He leaves open the door to salvation. The man can change still, or God can forgive his weakness. Who knows? That’s basically what Jesus says, Who knows? Only God knows who can be saved so let’s just leave it. We don’t ask questions about other people’s salvation.
But before even that, Jesus shows kindness to this rich young man. Notice how the encounter began. The man walks up to Jesus and the first thing he does is ask a brazen question followed by a brazen claim. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As if heaven can be purchased, or secured by just doing something. Follow the commandments, Jesus says. “I have kept all of these since my youth.” You sort of wonder if that’s true. But Jesus never questions the truth of his claim, never (as far as we know) looks at him askance. And the tone of his reply is not one of judgment, but compassion. “Jesus, looking at him [the rich young man], loved him.” That may be the most important line in this whole reading. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Before asking anything of him, any sacrifice, before even knowing the man’s response, Jesus loved him.
Is this a hard teaching? Yes. There is no question Jesus thought money a serious impediment–to piety, spontaneity, justice, living the good life as he saw it. And he could be harsh to those who have it. But he could also be kind. Because if you really want someone to change, as he did this young man, you don’t (of course) yell at them or make them feel guilty for all that they’re not doing. You show them you love them, first. Then you treat them with kindness, compassion and respect.
The Christian faith doesn’t ask us to change so that God will love us. It asks us to change because God does love us. Because grace, unmerited and freely bestowed, has been given to us, and it will Never Stop asking us to respond. Really respond. Amen.