Trinity 20: Navigating the World

The Revd Sally Hitchiner

My father had a rather formal upbringing, he wasn’t permitted to be silly and certainly not to play practical jokes. He has been making up for it ever since. Once, when I was about eight, and my younger sisters were six and four, he did such a magnificent prank that it has entered into family legend. 

He isn’t a betting man but a few of his colleagues in the office had decided to set up an lottery syndicate so he volunteered to coordinate it. He delegated checking the numbers to my youngest sister to practice her double figures. Each Saturday night we had “foreign food”(which in the 80s consisted of curry and pizza) and we were permitted to eat it while watching the television. 

One Saturday we went to my grandmothers and my dad secretly slipped in a video cassette (if you remember those) and recorded the whole of the Saturday night television. The following week he slipped it in without anyone noticing and handed my sister the lottery ticket he had bought with last week’s winning numbers on. Sure enough, when the moment came, my 4 year old sister started jumping up and down. My other sister went to get an Argos catalogue, then realised it was a bit bigger than this so went to get an atlas. I smelt a rat so sat quietly. My mum (he hadn’t included her in the joke!) went to call the relatives. 

And then my youngest sister burst into tears. 

She remembered hearing about families who win the lottery and it pulls them apart. My dad had to give up the joke and you’ll be released to hear we all forgave him… though we definitely send him the therapy bills. 

Jokes aside, being a parent is hard. The world is changing fast. Last week I was talking to some parents in our congregation about the challenges in how to raise our children in a way that equips them to be good people in a world that we have no idea about. I’m a university chaplain as my day job and I spend most days listening and helping 18-21 year olds from all over the world to think through faith and ethics so, even if your charges are 10 years younger, I promised that I would use this week’s sermon, whatever the passages to reflect this with you parents about how we can enable our young people to navigate the world.

As luck (or God!) would have it, this week’s gospel is strikingly relevant to that conversation. The person who comes to Jesus in this passage has a lot in common with millennials and Gen Z (the generation after those). He must have made quite an impression on the disciples as it’s one of the few stories that made it in to all three Synoptic gospels. 

Matthew tells us he was young. 

Luke tells us he was a ruler and they all mention his great riches. 

While the generation coming through will not be rich by the standards of baby boomers, better communication technology and through this the opportunity for understanding of those living in other parts of the world may mean that they will be more aware that globally they are rich.

Another thing that strikes me about the young adults I work with is how powerful they see themselves as now. I spoke to one young woman who turned 21 this week and she was agonising about what had she done with her life to help humanity. They all know of teenagers with millions of followers on Instagram and youtube. Facebook and twitter are apparently for old people! 

People their age have made a significant difference for environmentalism or alleviation of poverty or promotion of the arts. Malala was 16 when she won the Nobel Peace Prize. When I was at university the most ambitious of us dreamed that in our 40s and 50s we might be changing the world in some way. The democratic empowerment of social media has meant that 18 year olds now, routinely see themselves as or with the expectation to be, young rulers.

This young man is also passionately committed to being a good person. In a fit of earnestness that might be embarrassing to us cynical GenX-ers, he throws himself down before Jesus begging for some advice on how he can become a better person. Can you imagine a young corporate executive kneeling in the dust before a working class preacher? 

Our young people too have a sincerity that often takes me by surprise. Whether they want to be buddhists or Church of England vicars they care deeply about the environment, they care about exploitation of factory workers and animals and inclusion of those who society has excluded. I believe the term they use is “woke.”Woken up to the injustices in the world. They, like this young man, want to be good and are willing to follow every rule they’re offered to do this.

Jesus throws back the standard list of ways to avoid being a bad person of his day… don’t murder, don’t cheat on your wife, don’t lie, etc. Maybe we’d raise an eyebrow at a teenager who says they’ve always honoured their father and mother but it’s clear the earnest intention is there.  

“I’ve kept all these since I was a boy. How else am I lagging behind?”

And then something happens that I think is the heart the whole passage. If you want to understand what is happening here, and the most powerful thing we can do for our young people it is this. Jesus stops and looks at him and loves him. He beholds him, literally stops… and “gazes at him”for a second or two. Just letting himself take in how wonderful this young person is. Then the challenge comes… you can almost hear him say “If you’re sure you want to know…would you give up all your power and money and follow me.”

Some scholars suggest that this was making him consider whether he’d be as good if he’d had a different life. Of course he’d never felt tempted to murder or steal or lie because he’d never lived in a culture of poverty and crime. He wasn’t better than those who had done those things, he’d just lived a life where crime seemed the only way to survive.

Maybe there’s something in this but I think there’s also a sentiment that is repeated over and over in the gospels that the meaning of life is not to do things, to achieve things but to find meaningful connection with God and with our fellow human beings. It’s tempting to say that “of course Jesus didn’t mean that he was literally to give up all his possessions, and if he did he definitely didn’t mean that for us.”

But a few years ago I met a young woman in her late 20s who was the youngest barrister to make it to partner in her country. She had phenomenal wealth and promise in her profession. Then she felt God tell her to sell all she had and use the money to start a community of profoundly disabled people and able bodied people living together. I met her at Taize where she was spending the summer to refocus before she took the next step. She said two months ago she was one of the richest people of her generation in her country and now she had no job and all she owned was 2 changes of clothes, a Bible and a notebook… and I probably don’t need to tell you, a light in her eyes.

However neither can I tell you that it’s as simple as “doing”this one thing and we’ll all be fine. In contrary to what many in the medieval church believed poverty isn’t closer to God either. This story isn’t about money, it’s about power. I think it falls into the same category as the phrase we have in the C of E about making your confession to a priest. “All can, some should, none must.” The point is not the money, the point is not the achievements of being a good person, maybe the best person in his community, the point is here’s God the Son standing in front of you and all you can see is an opportunity to use someone to help you get a bit closer to your goal?

Finding Eternal Life is not found in doing things FOR God or for humanity, it is found in being WITH. Whether it is in caring for the homeless or becoming a good spouse or being a good parent or son or daughter or growing in your relationship with God, the secret to life is found in a commitment to remove anything that hinders our honest, sincere connection. And then putting ourselves in a position where we wait, vulnerably to see if the other person responds.

Placing our trust in the reciprocal relationship rather than seeing God or others as some sort of Relational Vending machine where if you insert enough coins, if you do this and don’t do that, you are guaranteed your can of coke. Life is found in giving yourself for connection with another human beings and trusting that they will meet you from the other side.

For some of us that might mean dramatic changes; saying no to that promotion, even changing your career path if it starts to threaten your ability to connect with God and those around you. For some, as with the disciples, that’s the easy bit but it’s harder to have empathy and care for those who are rich.

I remember a lady in the church I grew up in who’s husband was an earl. When he died my mother eventually invited her over for a coffee because she thought she might be lonely. Even though it was a very caring church, she said she was the only person who had reached out to her. Money had stopped people feeling they could invite her into their homes but she just wanted connection. For us as parents the most powerful thing we are able to do for our children as Jesus does for this young man, is to model this acceptance…taking a moment to gaze at our children. To look at them,properly look at them. To receive them as the magnificent and unique gifts that they are. Delight in who they are as unique human beings and without them having to achieve anything, just to love them. We need to look for the ways they are forming meaningful connections with those around them, their friends, those who are “poor”(whatever that means in their worlds at school and home). Are they growing in their ability to delight in people rather than use them for material or spiritual goals? We may find that sometimes they are our teachers in this.

The invitation from Jesus, whether it is to the rich young ruler or to all of us, is to behold each other and to drop anything that gets in the way of that. This is more costly than just giving us something to do. This isn’t a tick box exercise where you can walk away and think… great, I’m now a good person. I’m not lagging behind the most good people out there. What Jesus offers us is less of a certainty…but more organic. And the challenge in offering gifts to young people (as with all of us) is that sometimes it’s not quite the gift they had in mind. But take heart, that didn’t stop Jesus from offering it to young people and it shouldn’t stop us.

I’d like to end with a story of a man falls off a cliff …aagh! On the way down he manages to grab a branch, and shouts: “Is there anyone up there who can help me?” Suddenly he hears a thunderous response that he knows must be God: “I am here my son, let go of the branch and I will catch you.” He thinks for a minute and shouts back: “Is there anyone else up there?”