(a sermon for October 10, 2021, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 10:17-31)
It’s inevitable: every year just about this time when the leaves change color, there’s a chill in the morning air and as evening falls you can smell just a hint of wood smoke in the distance, immediately I am transported back to the days long ago when I was growing up and walking through the Northern Maine woods with my father.
I know… you’ve heard me speak of this from time to time in this pulpit (!), but even now I can’t begin to express to you just how formative an experience that was for me! I mean, with Dad as my guide, I got to know those woodlands like the back of my hand: I knew where the cedar swamps and high ridges all were; I knew where there were apple trees and places where partridge might hide; I walked through thick, black growth knolls where you were bound to see signs of white-tailed deer having passed through.
All these years later, I think I could still draw you a map of all the well-worn pathways, old tote roads, and “spotted trails” that wound in and through those woods; not that we used them very much, mind you! Now, you might recall that I spoke of those “spotted trails” in a message a few weeks ago, and how they served as a way home on the occasions when we would, shall we say, get “turned around” in the woods! But, as Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story: you see, my father was always the kind of woodsman who, if there was a tote road on this side, and a clear and easy spotted trail on the other, would inevitably choose the puckerbrush standing in the middle through which to travel!
Puckerbrush: from the original Greek (just kidding there!), meaning, “Dense, tangled undergrowth or scrub consisting of invasive shrubs and small trees… (hence) a remote, inaccessible, or uncultivated area.” In other words, a wooded mess! But, you see, my father always found his delight tramping through the thickest of the thick, pushing back branches and climbing around the blowdowns to get where he wanted to go, even if where he wanted to go is just an old log somewhere where he could sit and ponder, all the while watching for signs of life and movement in the forest surrounding him.
I have to confess that as a kid that really used to bug me! I always figured that if a tote road or spotted trail could get you quickly and easily around a cedar swamp, then why not use it! Why would anyone want to struggle through a huge mess of brush and blowdowns when you didn’t have to? Besides, it’s safer; because if you’re on a path, at least you know it’s going somewhere, and the chances are far less that you’ll find yourself lost on the pathway than if you’re stuck in the wilderness! Walking through the puckerbrush just seemed to me to be counterproductive and a big waste of time; but whenever I asked Dad about it, he’d always say, “Well, yes, it’s harder going this way; takes a little longer to go; you might not cover as much ground. But you’re never going to see a whole lot of deer out there in the clearing… they’re all hiding out here in the puckerbrush!”
Actually, as has been the case with a lot of things I learned from my parents over the years, I’ve discovered this to be a pretty good rule for life and living. Eventually, we all learn that by and large there are no easy answers, no quick fixes or short cuts in life; ultimately those things worth having come to us through hard work, devotion, wisdom borne of experience and some measure of suffering and struggle, as well as a certain amount of sacrifice! That’s not to say we wouldn’t prefer an easy pathway on which to walk – to win the lottery or suddenly discover you have a rich uncle who’s left you a fortune (!) – but I think most of us know that life’s real pathway generally winds in and through the puckerbrush of human experience with all of its joys and struggles. Last week you’ll remember how we talked about how in life and with faith, it’s the journey that matters and not the destination; well, let me just add something to that: that the journey of which we speak tends to take its route through the puckerbrushas opposed to the easy pathways… but then, it’s through the puckerbrush that life’s true meaning – and faith’s full purpose – is found.
In our text for this morning, Mark’s Gospel tells us that there was this man who literally “ran up and knelt before [Jesus]” as Jesus is getting ready to leave on a journey and asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s not certain that this man was purposely seeking a quick and easy answer to such an important question; on the other hand, it’s clear that this was a man who knew how to get what he wanted. We often refer to him as “the rich young ruler,” though Mark, in his version of the story, does not describe him as such. Here he’s just a man, but certainly a man who had “many possessions,” as well as what goes along with that: wealth, status, power; a sense of security that his place in the world had granted him. Even regarding his religion (!); what we find out here that this man knew the commandments and, moreover, had kept all of them since his youth. And yet he also knew that there was something he was missing in his life, and what he was missing was the security of receiving what God had promised to the faithful.
And so, quickly, before he got away, the man came to Jesus. If, the man reasoned, that which was missing was a lack of knowledge, he could study and learn what he needed to know. If there was something lacking in his performance of religion, or in his adherence to the law, he would discover what it was and do what needed to be done. If the answer to his emptiness could be bought or attained or earned, somehow, he would find a way to receive it; because that’s what you do when you’re a… rich, young ruler! All he knew is that he had to know. “What must I do,” he asked Jesus, “to receive eternal life?”
For me, you know, the wonderful thing about this passage is that Jesus never condemns the man for his sincere, if misguided, eagerness. In fact, as The Message translates it, “Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him!” Loved him, as it turns out, with what could only be referred to as “tough love.” “You lack one thing,” Jesus answered him. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Of course, you know what happened: we’re told that “he was shocked and went away grieving,” because as we said before, “he had many possessions.” This is, in fact, the only instance in the gospels where someone actually refuses to follow Jesus. For you see, Jesus had made an unreasonable request. It was too much to ask, too radical a sacrifice for this man to sell everything he owned because that meant giving up all that on which he had placed his trust and dependence for his life’s security… so there was nothing left for him to do but leave!
Now I don’t know about you, but as many times as I hear that story, it’s still not the ending I’m looking for… I mean, shouldn’t there be a happy ending here with Jesus saying, “I’m just kidding you, man, come along with me,” or the man eventually giving up everything so he can follow Jesus, or at the very least with some sort of compromise in place so that the “rich young ruler” gets what he wants… a “win-win,” so to speak! But the story always ends the same way, with the man “walk[ing] off with a heavy heart.” [The Message]
Again, not the ending we’re looking for; but truth be told, we understand, don’t we?
Some years ago now I heard of a clergy colleague who, I was told, was “struggl[ing] long and hard to understand his call to Christian ministry.” By that I mean that he appeared to have great gifts for becoming a pastor, and was sensing a true call to that kind of ministry; but in the end, he decided not to follow that call because he discerned that it would be too difficult for his wife and children to “downgrade” the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. In fact, as I understand it, he ended up accepting a big promotion within his company in a new city, with more money and greater power. It seemed like the right thing to do, but as it turned out, he was miserable; saddened by what could have and perhaps what should have been; tormented by a conflict of priorities, the entanglement of values, and ultimately, regarding “the road not taken.”
Now, do not misunderstand me here; I cannot fault this man for the decision he made. We all want the best for our families, any decision of one’s life certainly should consider everyone involved, and I will be the first to say to you that while a life in ministry is very good and worthwhile and spiritually fulfilling, it is also rarely, if ever, easy; and it is most assuredly not a decision to be taken lightly! And yet, here’s this man whose life was filled with wealth, security – perhaps even ease, to some extent, at least ease as the world views it (!) – but, a life that was empty where it counted; a man imprisoned by the very things in which he reasoned would give him his freedom, his comfort and his joy! So no wonder he was miserable!
What’s interesting here is after the rich young ruler walks away, Jesus continues to talk about how hard it will be for “those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” There’s that very familiar reference of the relative ease of a camel going through the eye of a needle compared to someone who is rich entering the kingdom of God… but in the end, what Jesus is talking about is less about money (per se!) than it is about all that which we might accumulate that keeps us from God; all of that which holds such primacy in our lives that it becomes for us the chosen pathway of our lives, the way that we perceive as easier, more comfortable, more convenient.
So given all that, I guess the question this morning becomes: when it comes to the kingdom of God, when it comes to inheriting eternal life what is the pathway we’re supposed to take? Do we take the tote road that’s wide and clear and easily circumvents the rough part of life’s journey? Or do we follow the spotted trail, which, while a bit more difficult to follow, still gets you there in half the time and with even less struggle? No, says Jesus, if you’re going to follow me, here’s what you need to do to get to where you want to be: let go of what you cling to, leave everything you have behind, set your compass and head right through the puckerbrush!
Entering the kingdom of heaven, you see, means trusting God and God alone to see us through the journey. Ultimately, it’s not about our rich, young ruling selves moving from riches to poverty, at least not in a literal sense, but rather moving ourselves from the life that shallow and empty to the life that leads to wholeness and fulfillment (which, by the way, might end up being the same thing… just sayin’!) It is about living the life that is truly holistic, in which all things work together for the good of heart, soul and spirit; in which the so-called “easy” pathways on which we’ve come to depend are abandoned in favor of the messy puckerbrush that inevitably comes in a life of faith.
And if that sounds difficult, well… it is. And know that Peter and the other disciples were just as “astounded” by Jesus’ insistence on this as we might be! It feels impossible that such a hard road could ever lead to such glory; and maybe, as Jesus says, it is, “if you think you can pull it off by yourself.” [The Message, one more time] But, then again, maybe you have “every chance in the world if you let God do it,” for by God’s grace and guidance all things are possible, even and especially for all those brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children who leave everything for the sake of the good news, “the last [who] will be first.”
And yes, the way may well be hard… very hard! You’ll be walking through all the briars and brambles and you’ll be forced to slow down at times! And you’ll feel like you’re constantly getting turned around and cover no ground at all! But here’s the thing: along the way, you’ll find that which you’ll never be able to see out in the clearing, or down the end of the tote road. Everything that really matters, you see, is all there in the puckerbrush!
You just have to be willing to walk through there!
Thanks be to God who walks with us on that journey… and even through the puckerbrush.
AMEN and AMEN.
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.