Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Getting Halfway There
Scripture Lesson:Luke 18:18-30
Zeno of Elea lived in the 5th century BCE. He was a pre-Socratic philosopher famous for his paradoxes and cited by both Plato and Aristotle in their work. Zeno was part of a group who opposed the tyrant Nearchus,. Zeno was captured and ordered to reveal the names of his friends. While being tortured, he consented to reveal his secrets by whispering into Nearchusís ear. When the tyrant bent over, Zeno bit his ear and would not release it until the guards killed him. Nearchus lost his ear. Zeno gave everything he had for his cause, even his life. Most of us are not as brave as Zeno.
The most famous paradox of Zeno is called Achilles and the tortoise. It has some mathematical and philosophical implications, but in itís simplest form, the paradox says this. If you approach a goal by always going halfway to the goal, you will never actually reach the goal. The idea is visualized in this diagram. While the idea is clearly true, it has motivated practical people to say, ďYes, but you can get close enough.Ē Or as people often say, ďItís good enough for horseshoes or hand grenades.Ē [Throw horseshow here]
In 1993, four women put two fully loaded canoes into a body of water called The Vly in the Adirondacks. Kathy Moore and I were two of the women and we had convinced friends that it would be fun to paddle from The Vly to Botheration Pond, which reportedly held native Brook Trout and which, at the time, had very poor trail access. It is a distance of less than a mile, as the crow flies, but canoes are not crows.
We got just about halfway to our goal when the channel became too narrow for paddling. As you can see, this section is oxbow after oxbow and at some of the turns, you could barely pivot the canoe. We jumped in the water, swimming and pushing the boats and making jokes about The African Queen. Kathy and I were laughing so hard, our sides hurt. We were having a grand time. It turned out our friends were not finding it so amusing. They were not having a good time and we turned around. We only got a little more than half way to our goal, but for two of us, it was a good journey, anyway.
The person we know as the Rich Young Ruler comes to Jesus and wanting to know what he can do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus first tells him to follow the commandments, but when the young man insists he has done so, Jesus encourages him to sell everything he has and to give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. We are told that the young man turned away grieving, because he had many possessions. He looks at the length of the journey ahead of him, the tasks set for him, and he decides he can never reach the goal, so he turns around and gives up.
This story makes most of us uncomfortable. It appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, so clearly it is an important story, a key story for our understanding of Christís message. We heard the version from the Gospel of Mark last year. Iím not sure I can do quite the job Kathy did, but thatís ok, the story has a lot to tell us.
Letís start with the obvious; this is not about giving more money to get a greater reward. The absolute amount given is not the point. You canít buy your way into Godís kingdom by donating thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Jesus is very clear, it is God who makes salvation possible; we are saved through Grace. So why does Jesus offer this young man this challenging prescription? Why set him on this journey?
Many of us today identify with the young manís despair. We live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Many of us own more stuff than we actually have space for, and yet we still spend time in malls or on the internet, buying more. As a culture, our landfills have grown higher than our buildings, filled with our cast-offs, and still we buy more.
Nicholas Thomas Wright is a conservative Anglican and a New Testament scholar. To Wright, this passage is critically important because it shows how Jesus is teaching us that the Kingdom of God breaks through into our reality when we can follow Jesus. He says the church is called on in every age to be the sort of community that Jesus describes a living example of this generosity, and that when we are giving to each other freely we can glimpse what God's kingdom is like and show it to others even while we live a bit in that Kingdom now.
Like the traveler who needs to wait in line with all the oversized baggage, the rich young manís possessions are holding him back and slowing him down. He is so busy checking his baggage that he misses his flight. He canít follow Jesus. The real tragedy is that he gives up before he even starts. Daunted by the thought of giving everything, he never takes the chance to see how much he could give. Never tries to make due with carry onÖ He never even gets half way.
Mother Teresa left her home and family at the age of 18 to live in poverty and follow Jesus. She did what the young man in the gospel could not do. She demonstrated the possibility of following the prescription, even though her example doesnít make it easier for most of us to do so. She was widely revered for her work in India and around the world. She received many visitors in Calcutta. One of them spotted the words we read as call to worship written on the wall of her room in the home for children that she founded and where she died. These words, as her quotation, became increasingly popular after her death in 1995 and they continue to be popular today. The words have appeared on websites, in song lyrics, on tee shirts and, somewhat ironically, they have earned some people thousands of dollars. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that she did not write most of those words.
In 1968 a young man by the name of Kent M. Keith was trying to motivate even younger students at his university. He realized many students were searching for meaning, but turning away from the very actions in their lives that could give them meaning. He wrote and distributed a group of statements he called the Paradoxical Commandments. He wanted to emphasize that when the world is at its craziest and most discouraging point, that is exactly the time we can take control of our tiny corner of it by doing the right thing, anyway. He said that by doing so, we can all find joy, anyway. Not long after he wrote the Paradoxical Commandments, he forgot about them. He just kept working.
One evening more than 30 years later, Keith was attending a meeting of his local Rotary club, which traditionally opened with prayer. The man giving the prayer that evening offered a series of admonitions that began, ďPeople are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.Ē
Now, because our words are our children, Keith immediately recognized his own, so after the meeting he went up to the man who offered them and asked about his source. The man began sharing the incredible story of Mother Teresa and the inspirational words attributed to her. Keith went home and began to do some research and discovered that indeed, hundreds and hundreds of people all over the world were quoting the Paradoxical Commandments under Mother Teresaís name.
I donít know about you, but at that point I think I would have been pretty irritated. If we were going to predict what Kent Keith did next, we might predict that he hired a lawyer. Keith was a writer and his words were under copyright. We might predict that he would sue all those people who made tee shirts and records and websites in order to get the royalties he deserved, but that is not what he did.
Keith says about his discovery, ďMother Teresa thought that the Paradoxical Commandments were important enough to put up on the wall of her children's home. That really hit me. I wanted to laugh, and cry, and shout-and I was getting chills up and down my spine. Öit had a huge impact on me. That was when I decided to speak and write about the Paradoxical Commandments again, thirty years after I first wrote them." He said, ď I set out to inspire people. Now they are inspiring me.Ē He didnít go to a lawyer. He followed the Lord.
Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, but he doesnít say why. We are tempted to think it is an issue of size, that the rich man is too fat in his wealth, that his moneybags are taking up too much space. I heard a sermon once about a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle and that you had to unload a pack animal to get through, but there is no evidence in historical or archeological records of such a gate. Jewish midrash about this expression says, if you make an opening for God as small as the eye of a needle, God will make it large enough to meet you through it. Itís about what you are able to leave behind in order to receive what God can give. Itís about exercising your giving muscles and lightening your load. Itís about training for the journey to the Kingdom.
Friends, you might not be Mother Teresa, who gave up all she had to serve the poor. Most of us are not Mother Teresa, but there is a good chance you might be someone like Kent Keith, who, without knowing it, gave her inspiration when she needed it and then found it returned to him. Kent Keith didnít give away everything, but he did give freely. He didnít worry about ďjust compensationĒ or keeping accounts. He didnít lose sleep over what he had earned or what he was getting back. He gave away what he could, and he is still enjoying the giving journey.
Thatís what giving freely is. It is an exciting, unpredictable, circuitous, complicated journey of exploration. It is an experiment to find what is really important and what really sustains you. You might not give away all of your wealth, but if you keep walking down that giving road, you will find yourself in wonderful, new places.
Give the world the best youíve got, of your money, of your time, of your talent. Give it with open hands.
Give the world the best youíve got; it will never be enough, but try. Then try to get a little further. Then try a little more. And while you are trying, pay attention to the journey.
Give the world the best youíve got and keep trying, even if you never make your final goal, by Godís Grace, if you keep trying, you can get close enough.